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Nuclear Test Veterans: Medals

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 November.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the significant contribution of the nuclear test veterans from across the Commonwealth who participated in Britain’s nuclear testing programme.

Seventy years ago, on 3 October 1952, the UK undertook its first nuclear test and in so doing confirmed our country’s status as the world’s third nuclear power. Critical to the success were those who took part in our nuclear testing programme. In doing so, they made a unique and unprecedented contribution to our national security. There is a direct line between the service of these men and women all those years ago and the safety and security of all nations today. In recognition of their service and to mark 70 years since the first test, the Government are undertaking a programme of recognition to mark the contributions of all service personnel and civilians who took part in the UK and, later, the US nuclear testing programmes in Australia and the Pacific.

The programme of recognition began yesterday with the UK’s first commemorative event for nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to mark the 70th anniversary of the first UK nuclear test. Going forward, the programme will include recognition of the role of military and civilian staff from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and other Pacific islands, which were involved in the nuclear testing operations, as well as an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the lands that were used for nuclear testing.

We will provide funds to support activities for nuclear test veterans and educate the public on their efforts. We are commissioning an oral history archive to ensure that the stories of the veterans who served are captured for future generations.

The Prime Minister yesterday announced the creation of a new medal, the nuclear test medal, which has been graciously approved by His Majesty the King. This important medal will recognise and commemorate the service to the nation by participants in the UK’s nuclear testing programme. This cohort of veterans, made up of both military and civilian participants, made a significant contribution to our enduring international security. In establishing the UK’s nuclear deterrent during the critical early years of the cold war, it is important that their service is recognised and commemorated properly, and a medal is an important part of that.

It is expected that eligibility for this medal will be announced in the early part of 2023, at which time related eligibility guidance and information about the application process will be laid before Parliament.

It was a privilege to officially commemorate for the first time our nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum yesterday. We gathered together to say thank you to all those who were present and to the families of those whom we have already lost. This nation today still enjoys the freedoms and privileges afforded by their service, which started 70 years ago, and it is right that they have now finally received official recognition for their service.

I thank my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for announcing the medals for nuclear test veterans yesterday. The energy that he uses to make this the best place in the world in which to be a veteran should be supported across the House. Without his support, yesterday’s event would simply not have been a success.

I also thank my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary whose support for this cause over many years has been noted by campaigners. I pay tribute, too, to the often unseen members of the civil service who have gone well above and beyond over the past few nights, particularly those who have worked tirelessly in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and in No. 10 on this.

Primarily, I want to record from this Dispatch Box the Government’s thanks to the veterans of our nuclear tests. As one veterans’ campaigner to another, I would say, ‘I salute you. I salute your relentlessness, your courage and your determination. Your legacy is long and impressive.’ I also wish to pay tribute to the families, friends and supporters of nuclear test veterans from all sides over the past 70 years. Their support to these men and women has been steadfast—from those who work in the media to those, from all parties, who have campaigned for so long in Parliament itself, such as the honourable Member for Salford and Eccles, Rebecca Long Bailey, my honourable friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, Mr Baron, and my right honourable friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, Sir John Hayes.

I salute the campaigners and I thank them, as we are now finally delivering on the long-overdue medallic recognition of our nuclear test veterans. A medal does not signify the end of that recognition; it signifies a new beginning of the official recognition of the nuclear test veterans’ service, with the initiatives I have outlined. I look forward to working with all Members of the House in the years ahead to get that right.”

My Lords, as the Government said in their Statement, 70 years ago the UK undertook its first nuclear test, and in doing so confirmed our status as the world’s third nuclear power. Critical to that success, as the Government acknowledged in the Statement, were those who took part in the nuclear testing programme. By taking part in that programme, they made a huge contribution to our national security and that of many other nations. They did so out of duty and pride in their country, but not without consequences. It is right that, at long last, their bravery and sacrifice are to be recognised. Tuesday’s announcement was a huge victory for our nuclear test veterans and their families. Finally, they will receive the long-overdue recognition that they richly deserve through this nuclear test veterans’ medal.

We should also recognise and congratulate all the campaigners who have campaigned over so many years for such recognition. It cannot be overstated that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their service far away from home and for the fact that, because of their service, we have a nuclear deterrent. As I said, this deterrent has contributed to the defence and security of our democracy and the values we hold dear. We should never forget that and always pay homage to them.

We should also remember that their commitment to our country often came at great personal cost to those individuals and their families. We should never forget that reports state that nuclear test veterans have a legacy of cancers, blood disorders and rare diseases, with their wives and partners reporting three times the usual rate of miscarriage. Their children also have higher rates of various conditions, including infant mortality. That is and was the cost of our nation’s safety. These veterans and their families have paid for that safety.

Given that it is estimated that only 1,500 of the 22,000 service personnel who took part are still alive, does the Minister hope, as I do, that their families and descendants will feel that a historic injustice has at last been recognised? Given that, rightly, the medals can be awarded posthumously, will the Minister ensure that sufficient resources are put into finding the living descendants of nuclear test veterans so that all who served are recognised? Will the Minister also commit to ensuring that the criteria for eligibility for the nuclear test veterans’ medal are made as wide as possible?

It has been reported that some blood test results have been withheld from veterans’ families seeking answers about the long-term effects of their service. Will these records be made available if these reports are accurate? Could the Minister comment on this?

There have also been media reports that the advisory military sub-committee had recommended that the nuclear test veterans should not get a medal but, rightly and thankfully, it is reported that this was overruled by Ministers and the Government. Does this suggest to the Government that there needs to be a wider review of the system of awarding medals to serving military personnel and veterans?

Finally, it has been 70 years since these military personnel doing their duty gave this service to their country. It should not require campaigns, media articles and the bravery of the veterans’ families and the veterans themselves to get their own country to recognise their sacrifice. We very much welcome this announcement from the Government and the subsequent announcements associated with it that the Government have made. In doing so, we at last recognise the campaigners and the families but, above all, the veterans, as their country thanks them properly for their service. It will not be forgotten and, through this medal, it will be honoured.

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the very valid questions he asked. I welcome this move. It was a change of heart from the Government, but nevertheless a welcome move for those military and civilian personnel who served their nation and now will, finally, be properly recognised. Notwithstanding views about the weapons system itself, these people served their country and recognition—unfortunately, as the noble Lord indicated—has come too late for many. However, it will provide some comfort to their families that an often-disregarded service is now being recognised.

How many civilians will be eligible for recognition and the medal? On support, which the noble Lord asked so clearly about, in replying to questions on the Statement in the Commons, the Veterans Minister, Mr Mercer, indicated that pensions were available. But, of those who are eligible for pensions, what is the Government’s estimate of the proportion who are receiving them? Often, this is, in effect, an opt-in. There is the very valid point about promoting material through the various networks. Some of these veterans will be part of veterans’ associations and others will not, so how will the Government disseminate and promote this information?

My final question is on the indigenous communities in the areas where these tests took place. The indigenous communities in Australia did not voluntarily offer their land for British nuclear tests, and they too have been impacted. The Minister in the Commons indicated that the UK Government provided £20 million then to clear this up, but the legacy is much longer. I met with the acting high commissioner of Australia this week, and she raised with me the good work now being done with the new Prime Minister of Australia in seeking to enhance recognition of the indigenous communities. We can play our part with our allies and friends in the Australian Government by increasing our recognition of the impact on their communities of something that has made our country safer, as the Government say, but which has unfortunately made many of those communities less safe. So, what do the Government plan to do for the indigenous communities in places where these tests took place?

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, Tuesday’s announcement was a huge victory for the nuclear test veterans. Since the very positive announcement by the Minister for Veterans on Tuesday was taken as read, I will make three points by way of introduction before I answer the noble Lords’ questions.

As the noble Lord said, the UK undertook its first nuclear test 70 years ago and, in so doing, confirmed our country’s status as the world’s third nuclear power, which has helped to keep peace since World War II. Critical to the success were those who took part in our national testing programme. There is a direct line between their service all those years ago and the safety and security of our nation today, which becomes ever more important.

Secondly, in recognition of their service and the 70th anniversary, the Government are undertaking a wide programme of recognition to pay tribute to all service personnel, and civilians—that is so important—who took part in the testing programme in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. The programme of recognition began this week with the UK Government’s first commemorative event at the National Memorial Arboretum, with the Prime Minister himself announcing the creation of a new medal for military and civilian participants in the testing programme. It was wonderful that Ministers, veterans and their families gathered at the arboretum to thank all those who were present and the families of those whom we have lost.

Thirdly, this has been a cross-party matter, as the Veterans Minister said in the other place. It is not only people like the Secretary of State for Defence who have been involved in all of this; so have Rebecca Long Bailey, John Baron and Sir John Hayes. People from across the parties have been involved, which is unusual and well worth celebrating.

Clearly, I am new to this subject, but I will try to answer all of the questions and I will follow up on those I do not. We will of course need resources to find who should be given the medals, and it is clear that the process has to get under way. I do not think we have given an estimate of the numbers, but we are keen to make this a success and look generously at who should be awarded.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about pensions. The question was raised in the other place and the Minister for Veterans indicated that he would be writing on this issue. What I can say is that I will ensure that a copy of that letter also gets sent to noble Lords engaged in this debate, and I will try to add to the request the percentage of those eligible, which I think is an additional one. We will do what we can. It was quite a long time ago and it is often quite difficult to find answers to these questions, but we can certainly look at the pensions. Of course, veterans who believe they have suffered ill health due to service can apply for no-fault compensation under the war pension scheme, and more information is on the Veterans UK pages on GOV.UK, including specific guidance for the nuclear test veterans.

I was asked about plans for reviewing medals more generally, and I have to say that there are currently no plans to review the assessment process; it is a well-established process. The Advisory Military Sub-Committee is an independent committee; it has robust processes in place to review historic military medals and claims against the military medals framework.

Finally, I will say how important it was to acknowledge the indigenous populations, whose traditional lands and territorial seas were used for nuclear testing. As the noble Lord said, this has already been the subject of a £20 million ex gratia payment to Australia to help rehabilitate former lands and seas. I was very interested to hear about the discussions he has been having with the Australians, and I look forward to catching up further on that.

My Lords, I rise with great pleasure, as I always do in your Lordships’ House, to use the hashtag Campaigning Works, and I join the Front Bench spokespeople in commending the nuclear test veterans and their families who have campaigned so hard, and for so long, and can now finally celebrate the results. I do hope that the Government can ensure that these medals reach the veterans and their families.

My question follows on from that of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and from what the Minister was just saying about the traditional owners of these lands. I note that in this rather long Statement there is one sentence that refers to

“an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the lands that were used for nuclear testing”.

I wonder whether the Minister might be able to amplify a little what the word “acknowledgement” actually means? I particularly note in that context Maralinga, the most infamous site in Australia with the worst contamination, and the worst damage done to indigenous communities. Just last year a Monash University study revealed some new scientific understanding that in the desert environment, even small particles can break down in that environment to release plutonium—something that is happening right now at this moment and will happen for many decades, and perhaps centuries. So, would “acknowledgement” include more support, perhaps for more research and more action to deal with the continuing damage?

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to publicly acknowledge the use of lands belonging to traditional landowners for nuclear testing, both in Australia and the Pacific; I was going to volunteer that point which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made. We are acknowledging it publicly in Parliament, and we have to continue to do that; I am not aware of any particular research in the area that the noble Baroness mentioned, but I will certainly ask that question and come back to her if I can give her any more information. I suspect that she may know a great deal more about Australia and what is going on there.

My Lords, I very much echo the congratulations of other noble Lords on this matter finally being resolved. The points about the indigenous population and any kind of fallout are very important, because there could be nothing worse for the reputation of our country than the idea that we would conduct experiments of this sort, which are very important, and somehow poison other people’s land without compensating them and checking that it is now safe.

I, too, very respectfully suggest that there are lessons to be learned here. Bureaucracy, of course, takes a long time. Where compensation, medals and pensions are concerned, I am sure the Government would prefer not to be seen to have this matter resolved by people constantly having to campaign and drag it from them. I suggest to the Minister that we should try to be more proactive about looking ahead when these problems arise, and perhaps even come up with solutions before we need endless campaigns. It is more honourable and dignified, and it is clearly applicable to a question such as this. However, I repeat that I am very glad that this question has now been resolved.

I am glad that the noble Lord also mentioned the communities in Australia and elsewhere. Of course, as I said, there has been a government ex gratia payment, which I believe was very important. Although the 1950s and 1960s were a long time ago, it is not too late to honour the brave people involved. Those looking at these cases in the round have difficult judgments to make but, having said that, the noble Lord is right that we should learn from mistakes. That is one of the principles I have brought into government with me: learn as you go along, because you can improve in almost every area of government.

My Lords, in 1992, I led a delegation of British parliamentarians to the Maralinga test site. While I very much welcome the award at long last—70 years on—of medals to British nuclear test veterans, I ask the Minister what the position is now on monetary compensation for them and their families. She will know that a study in 1999 found that an extraordinary 30% of these veterans had already died, mostly in their 50s, from cancers and other conditions. This is hardly surprising as air crew were required to fly through the mushroom cloud and servicemen were ordered to walk, run and crawl across the site to see how much nuclear fallout adhered to their uniform.

Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Coaker mentioned, a disproportionate incidence of birth deformities, cancers and infant mortalities has been found in the veterans’ children. Given the arguments that took place between the Governments of the UK and Australia about responsibility for compensation, and given the years of obfuscation by the MoD before it agreed in 1988 to compensate our own veterans, to what extent can the Minister assure the House that appropriate compensation has now been paid? Do the Government intend to take further steps to fulfil any legal and moral obligations to servicemen and their families, to civilian families and to the traditional owners of the lands where the tests took place?

I am glad to have the further experience of the noble Lord. Although I was not aware of his visit, he brings great emotion to this subject, which is very helpful on a day when we have made a great deal of progress in this area. He will know that there is an established process for all veterans, including nuclear test veterans, to be able to claim compensation where they believe they have a service-related condition. Veterans UK has worked with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association—whom I take this opportunity to congratulate—to develop enhanced guidance to support claimants belonging to the nuclear test veterans community, which is available on GOV.UK.

In addition to the medals, a wider package was announced—the oral history project, which is important in remembering the victims involved. I have taken part in oral history projects and they are extremely valuable, as this one will be for the veterans, their families and everyone else involved. Charities will also be able to bid for a separate £200,000 fund to support activities.

House adjourned at 5.20 pm.