Skip to main content

Nuclear Test Veterans

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2023


Asked by

The Government are dedicated to acknowledging and honouring the contribution of nuclear test veterans. The Government hosted an event at the National Memorial Arboretum in November 2022, at which a new commemorative medal to mark the contribution of nuclear test veterans was announced by the Prime Minister. We also introduced the £250,000 oral history project to help tell their life stories and a £200,000 community fund, enabling organisations to deliver bespoke programmes that build further understanding and support veterans and their families.

I thank the Minister for the great progress being made, but I raise the issue of veterans who have been given conflicting statements on the availability of blood and urine sample records. In 2018 the MoD acknowledged its inability to locate that information, yet in 2022 the Atomic Weapons Establishment confirmed possession of a limited number of test results. However, in March a Minister contradicted that, saying that the AWE no longer has those records. Veterans’ families have lodged appeals with the Information Commissioner’s Office for more answers. What test data exists for the veterans and in what format and how many does it cover? Will the Government promptly resolve this issue and ensure that affected veterans have access to their rightful medical information, without the need for legal intervention?

The noble Lord was kind enough to mention to me that he had written to the Government on this matter. His letter has been passed to the Ministry of Defence, which will reply to the detailed points that he has raised. However, there is one certainty: the nuclear test veterans can apply to the Ministry of Defence for access to any personal information. That request can be for any relevant health records or blood data within their service record.

My Lords, a dozen years ago, when I was working in the Ministry of Defence, the nuclear test veterans’ organisation brought a case against the Ministry of Defence for compensation. It went to the Supreme Court, which included, at the time, our late and much-respected colleague Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. After some deliberation, it found that there was no case to answer. Indeed, our investigations at the time found that, if one had watched a nuclear test in the South Pacific in the early 1950s, against a cohort of one’s peers, one was more likely to be alive than they were, for whatever reason. That was quite extraordinary. I say to my noble friend the Minister: let us respect those who did their work and duty in the South Pacific but please let us not be led down a blind alley by people who, for some reason, believe that they were harmed. Actually, they were doing their duty, but they were not harmed.

I thank my noble friend for that history, of which I was not aware. I point out that any veteran, including those of the nuclear tests, who believes that they have suffered ill health due to service has a right to apply for no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme. War pensions are payable in respect of illness or injury as result of service in the Armed Forces and with the benefit of reasonable doubt always being given to the claimant, which I regard as very important.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the Royal Mint’s advisory committee on coins and medals. I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning that the medal was announced for the veterans, but can she assure the House that the medal will be available for Armistice Day this year?

The noble Baroness is right that the rollout of the medals has been a little slower than we had expected. We were keen to make progress on this, and we announced last November that the medal would be given to these brave veterans. Others will know that it takes time to design, improve and manufacture a new medal. However, I am absolutely determined—and Johnny Mercer, the Veterans Minister, who everybody will no doubt know, is determined—that we will do everything we can to make those medals available on the chests of veterans on Remembrance Sunday.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s exchanges with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will she clarify that the Government believe that nuclear test veterans have an absolute right to access any records of tests from samples they have given over the years? Will the Government assist those individuals who are having to follow up the claims themselves, when they believe that medical records are being withheld?

I can certainly confirm that no information is withheld—transparency is very important in this area. Any medical records taken before, during or after participation in the nuclear weapons tests would be held in individual military records in the government archives. Where a veteran is still alive, they can request personal data relating to them as a subject access request. In relation to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, veterans may need to make a freedom of information request, which has been the subject of questions—but nearly all or most of the information is readily available, and it is key to make a subject access request to the MoD.

The way in which the Minister is answering these questions leaves me very uncomfortable. Is there a member of the Government to whom a veteran can turn and be guaranteed that they will be helped through the process of gaining this information? They were exposed to dangerous radiation, not of their own choice but because they were soldiers at the time—quite properly, but they must now be aided. Many of them are quite old and really need forceful help to solve these problems.

I very much agree that the veterans, because they played such a valuable role in developing our nuclear deterrent, which has kept Britain safe for decades, need to be helped. That is why I have given the assurances that I have in relation to my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence—and, of course, work in the veterans area is co-ordinated by Johnny Mercer, the Veterans Minister. It depends a little on what colleagues require, but of course the Government are here to help on these important issues.

My Lords, I can never resist a Question with “nuclear” in its title. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will join me in congratulating the Government on the successful launch of the properly funded Great British Nuclear body this morning, led by a Welsh chairman and chief executive, and in welcoming a renaissance of Great Britain’s nuclear industry, which led the world only 40 years ago.

In the circumstances, I forgive my noble friend for the breadth of her question, and certainly join her in welcoming this event today. It is very important for the future of this country. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are very important to our stability, resilience and safety.

My Lords, to return to the issue of nuclear tests, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Montebello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, which are at the centre of a 60,000-hectare marine park. Three tests were conducted there, and there is increasing research and concern about residual radioactivity. There are areas where tourists are told not to stay for more than one hour. While the Government rightly focus on the circumstances of British nuclear veterans, are they also keeping a close watching brief on those sites and on the fallout—literally—that continues from those tests and will they make sure that they take any remedial action or provide any remedial support or information that they can to help other countries deal with the leftover situation?

I look forward to discussing the point that the noble Baroness raised in more detail. That is another question of breadth. Clearly, the nuclear test medal was designed specifically to recognise the unique contribution of the personnel who served in the locations, such as Australia, which she mentioned, and who served with UK forces as part of the testing of the vital deterrent.