The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed: the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell).
This subject evokes considerable passion among some, perhaps even many, people. We have heard the veterans’ cause argued with that passion yet again by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, and he is right to do so. Members should bring issues that are dear to their hearts to this place, so that we can debate them and causes and ideas can be advanced, only for Ministers then to say too often, unfortunately, “Well, it all sounds very good, but I am afraid I don’t agree with you, and I’m afraid that at the moment this proposal will not advance particularly far within Government. We’ve made our position clear.”
Before I explain why that is, I want to make something absolutely clear. It seemed to be suggested that the Government have not acknowledged the significant role played by the men and women who participated in the nuclear test programme. My hon. Friend quite properly mentioned a letter written to him by the Prime Minister. I repeat some of the Prime Minister’s words, because I cannot put it as eloquently as he did:
“This Government continues to recognise the servicemen who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. Their contribution ensured that the UK was equipped with an appropriate nuclear deterrent during the cold war, which thankfully we never needed to use.”
To be absolutely clear, I do not hesitate to acknowledge the hugely significant role played by all those veterans, and I pay tribute to all who participated in the programme. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
I do not doubt the Minister’s genuineness on this issue, or indeed the Prime Minister’s. The letter that the Minister read out was a response to me. All test veterans would welcome a statement from the Prime Minister addressed to them, officially recognising their role and our debt of gratitude to them. We would prefer it to be given orally—perhaps in a statement in the House—but if not, a written statement would go a long way towards ticking that box, rather than just giving part of a response to me about a wider issue in the campaign.
It is not for me to say what the Prime Minister should or should not do, but he has written in clear terms to my hon. Friend, who I assume shared the letter with all those in the association. However, I understand—he will correct me if I am wrong—that not all those who participated in the test programme necessarily belong to the association. I am now putting it on record, in Hansard, for all to see and to broadcast to all veterans the Prime Minister’s clear acknowledgement and tribute to those veterans, as well as his acknowledgement of the great service that they did our country.
That is very much my point. The Prime Minister’s response was to me. Not every test veteran is a member of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. Although I welcome the Minister’s warm words of acknowledgement and gratitude and I do not doubt her genuine intent, a statement to all test veterans from the Prime Minister, preferably orally but if necessary in writing, would cost nothing and would tick that box, and it would be gratefully received by all concerned.
I will ensure that the Prime Minister hears my hon. Friend’s words. He will then decide how he may or may not be able to advance the matter. However, I think that my having read out the letter so that it can be publicly recorded in Hansard goes a considerable way towards making it absolutely clear that the Prime Minister acknowledges the great work done and why it was so important.
As we know, for many years, veterans of the nuclear tests have claimed that their health has been damaged by exposure to ionising radiation. The Ministry of Defence has consistently rejected those claims on the basis of the findings of three comprehensive studies on cancer incidence and mortality among nuclear test participants carried out by the independent National Radiological Protection Board. The three studies were conducted and published over a 20-year period, beginning in 1983 and finishing in 2003. Overall levels of cancer incidence and mortality were similar to those in matched service controls, and death rates from all causes were lower than expected from national rates.
On specific cancers, there was some evidence of a raised risk of certain leukaemias, but the researchers concluded that it was due to chance rather than radiation exposure. The Government has every confidence in those independent studies. Accordingly, we believe that there are no grounds for paying compensation to British nuclear test veterans as a group.
In 2010, the MOD commissioned a health needs audit of all BNTVA veteran members resident in the UK. The survey, which had a return rate of 71%, asked respondents to self-report on serious illnesses and long-term conditions diagnosed by a doctor since their participation in the nuclear tests. Overall, the range and severity of problems reported was typical of older people in the UK in general. Whatever their health experience, most respondents indicated that, in general, they felt that their health care needs were being met very well by the NHS; primary care services were particularly well regarded.
My hon. Friend referred to the Rowland report. I am reliably informed that the report, published in a specialist genetics journal, concerned a laboratory-based study of peripheral blood lymphocytes—I apologise for my pronunciation, which may not be great—that were taken in the mid-1990s from 50 New Zealand naval veterans who had been on weather ships 50 to 100 km from the detonation centre of Operation Grapple in 1957-58. Dr Rowland reported the findings of three cytogenetic tests. Two showed no difference between the veterans and matched control groups. The third showed an elevated translocation frequency in the peripheral blood lymphocytes—I am more than happy to share that in plain English with my hon. Friend—of the veterans compared with the control group.
The sample size was acknowledged to be small, and there has been some doubt about the suitability of the control group. Known possible causes of increased translocation include ageing and cigarette smoke as well as ionising radiation. The report emphasises that the study makes no comment on the health status of the veterans. At this time, such cytogenetic tests are not in routine clinical use, because no relationship has been shown between any genetic abnormality and health effects or clinical state.
May I return to the health needs analysis? I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has now taken his seat, as I paid him a compliment earlier by suggesting that he was instrumental in helping us get the health needs analysis, which was our campaign’s first objective. The veterans of the BNTVA have found it helpful as a pathway to guide them through the NHS.
To return to the science briefly, we can argue about it. Professor Rowland’s report was peer-reviewed and was accepted by the New Zealand Government of the time; the Minister should not skirt over that too lightly. The point that I am suggesting to her is that, compared with other countries that have test veterans, we are near the bottom of the table in terms of how we treat them. Surely, there is a moral obligation to consider where Britain fits in. In many other countries, veterans do not have to establish a causal link between being at the tests and ill health. Compensation comes automatically, although I stress once again that I am not arguing for compensation in this case; I am asking for recognition, as highlighted.
I am interested by that intervention. My hon. Friend now seems to be saying that we should put the science to one side, because it perhaps does not suit his argument, but the science is absolutely clear. However, I am more than happy to turn now to the comparison of international provisions for nuclear test veterans.
Will the Minister give way?
I will deal with this first, and then I will be more than happy to give way. I hope that I can set the record absolutely straight.
Comparisons of provisions in the United Kingdom and other countries can be very misleading. We are not at the bottom, and I do not want these good people, who have served our country so well, to feel that they are in some way being short-changed and that an advantage is being given to test veterans from other countries. I will go through some of the other schemes.
Let us talk about America. The compensation scheme offered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs must be seen in the context of the United States health care system, which, as we know, is not free. Access to veterans’ health care is for those with service-connected disability of a certain level, and it is means-tested for all veterans, including atomic veterans. I would therefore argue that is not as good as the scheme in our country.
Will the Minister give way?
No. I am so sorry. I will be happy to give way at the end, but I want to go through all these other countries to put the record straight.
Let us look at the compensation scheme run by the Canadian Government. It was run for just one year—from 2008 until 2009—and it was principally designed for approximately 900 personnel involved in the clean-up of the Chalk River radiation leak, without reference to any illness or injury. If I may say so, therefore, its relevance to our nuclear test veterans is, at best, peripheral.
In France, nuclear test veterans have been eligible for compensation only since 2009, and they were not consulted on the design of the scheme now in existence. As a result, although it may appear more generous than the UK’s war pensions scheme, which I will describe later, the scheme in France demands a greater burden of proof of a link to service. If I may say so, it would do, because it was introduced only in 2009. As a result, we believe only one award has been made in France, which speaks volumes about that scheme.
It is a similar story in Australia, where the compensation scheme operates in part on the basis of a reasonable hypothesis. Again, that may appear, at first blush, to be more generous than the terms of our war pensions scheme, which demands only that a reasonable doubt of a link to service is raised on the basis of reliable evidence. However, in fact, nuclear test veterans in Australia face a tougher test, which is set out in the legislation. For example, for cancer of the bladder, veterans must have received a cumulative dose of at least 100 mSv of ionising radiation a number of years before clinical onset, while there is no such requirement in the UK scheme.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Isle of Man scheme. The Isle of Man decided to award £8,000 to nuclear test veterans, with no proof of medical causation required. That is, of course, a matter for the Manx Parliament. The UK Government rightly have an evidence-based policy. They also strive to provide value for money for the taxpayer, which the Isle of Man has less need to be concerned with, because it has made only two payments.
Our central argument is not to put the science to one side, as the Minister suggested. We can argue about the science, and both sides will be able to draw justification for their particular line. The Rowland report was certainly peer reviewed and accepted by the New Zealand Government of the day, so it cannot be easily discarded by the Minister.
Let me return, however, to what I call the international table of decency. The Minister needs to check what happens with regard to US veterans, because those who turn up at a veterans’ hospital have access to free health care. In addition, there does not have to be a causal link between being at the tests and one of a series of illnesses—mostly cancer, but other illnesses, too.
The Minister also mentioned Canada; again, no causal link is required, but it is clear that the payment is there to be made. Likewise, the Minister is slightly incorrect, or disingenuous at least, to suggest that we can simply discard the example of the Isle of Man. She says that only two payments have been made, but she also needs to check that figure, because my evidence suggests that 17 have been made to date.
Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
Order. Before I call the Minister, may I repeat the obvious point that interventions should be brief?
That is what I am told. If my hon. Friend is saying that it is not true, we will get it sorted out and we will find out. My information is that there have been two payments. He misses the point about the American system, which is that it is means-tested, while ours is not. I have made my point about Canada, where the scheme applied to 900 personnel involved in a clean-up after a radiation leak. I would therefore suggest that there is no comparison to be made in relation to nuclear test veterans.
On the science, my hon. Friend relies on one report, and I have made my comments about it. I rely on three reports, which have been done over many years, and I know of no one who challenges their findings.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
I apologise for not being here earlier, but I was in another meeting. Does the Minister agree that the issue with the Rowland study, which I have read on several occasions, is that although it found radiation could, in some cases, cause chromosome abnormality, it did not—this is the important next step—show that those chromosomal changes led to cancer?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing that information. That is another compelling argument in relation to the science.
I want to make it absolutely clear that it gives no one any pleasure to stand up and to have to talk about these things, because it sounds as if no one cares. On the contrary, those of us who do not agree with my hon. Friend and the £25 million fund that he advances do so not because we do not care, but because we know what the science says and because—I certainly take this view—we have to set this issue in the context of all our veterans, so that we do justice by everyone. We must always be careful not to be seen in any way to single out one group and put it above another.
I really take issue with the idea that we are somehow being shameful, or that we are in any way wrong, in our attitude to our nuclear test veterans. That is not the case. The existing scheme is good, fair and, arguably, generous, and it is one we should be proud of. Of course one could always argue that anyone in receipt of any form of compensation or benefit should have more, but what we have at the moment is fair and generous.
Let me come on to our scheme, because it is important to put on the record that any veteran who believes they have suffered ill health due to service has the right to apply for no-fault compensation. We therefore have a no-fault compensation scheme under the war pensions scheme. Where there is reliable evidence that disablement is due to service, a war pension is awarded, with the benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Nuclear test veterans are no different, and war pensions are paid to claimants for disorders accepted in principle as being caused by radiation, where the evidence raises a reasonable doubt of service-related radiation exposure. In addition, awards are made automatically to nuclear test veterans who developed certain leukaemias within 25 years of participating in the tests. For some, therefore, there is an automatic entitlement, which is absolutely right. Again, that begins to move us up that so-called league table, if, as some would argue, such a table exists.
It should be noted, however, that in May this year the first-tier tribunal, the war pensions and armed forces compensation chamber, delivered a decision in a group action of 14 nuclear test veterans’ war pension appeals. The majority of the appeals were rejected. The tribunal found material exposure where appellants undertook work in forward areas or otherwise came into contact with radiation, but not in relation to the majority of the bystander appellants. The decisions of the tribunal support the MOD’s current policy relating to claims for a war pension made by nuclear test veterans.
The veterans have made it clear that they find the war pensions process time-consuming and arduous, even when they are successful. We talk about success rates, but 90% of the veterans membership have failed to get a war pension.
As for the international table, the compensation payments in the USA, Canada and so on—although I am focusing on recognition, not compensation—are made in addition to war pensions that are already given to veterans. We should not paint this country’s war pensions as doing anything special, when those are very much automatic in other countries, and there is compensation on top of that.
I have made my comments about the so-called league table, and have relied on the information I have been supplied with, but I do not believe that our nuclear test veterans are at the bottom of any league table. I certainly do not believe that our record is shameful.
The Government’s second reason for remaining unable to support a benevolent fund concerns the comparison that my hon. Friend has made with compensation packages provided abroad. I hope that I have dealt with all that. My hon. Friend mentioned the sum—it is actually £20 million—given by the UK Government as compensation to the Australian Government in the 1990s. We should be clear about why that money was made over. The £20 million was ex gratia and was given to the Australian Government to contribute to the total cost of rehabilitating the test sites in Australia. Payments were made in instalments, the last being made in 1998. I do not want it to be suggested that the Government somehow advantaged veterans or other people who served in the forces in Australia.
The Government hold the view that to create a benevolent fund would be tacitly to accept liability for which no legal grounds exist. That was demonstrated in the atomic veterans group litigation for damages against the MOD in 2006. In 2009, 10 lead cases were allowed to proceed to a full trial on causation, at the judge’s discretion, under the Limitation Act 1980; normally, there is a three-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims. The MOD appealed, and in 2010 the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court ruling in all respects, except for one case. In arriving at its judgment, the court also considered the merits of the claims in terms of causation and concluded that their general merits were extremely weak.
The Minister has been generous in giving way, which is appreciated in a debate of this sort. Payment to a benevolent fund would not necessarily be an admission of liability. An ex gratia payment makes no admission of liability or guilt. We need to make that clear. The Government have made ex gratia payments to other countries, as the Minister readily admits.
I must throw that back to my hon. Friend and ask him for what purpose he wants a benevolent fund. Is he saying that the nuclear test veterans’ need is greater than that of other groups of veterans? What would the payment redress?
I am pleased that we are clarifying this. To repeat what I said earlier, the payments would be dispensed on the basis of need, to help with care and treatment, not on the basis of entitlement. Not all veterans would receive it, but it would be recognition of the fact that their service was in many respects unique, that the science was at the time unknown and that the risk was unquantifiable. Let us not forget that those servicemen were doing national service; that is an important factor. In many respects their service was unique, and we should recognise that.
I do not think that that is the strongest of cases. We know what the science tells us. If the view is advanced that the group of veterans in question—and I pay tribute to their service—should have the money just because they did that work on the country’s behalf, I can hear that being advanced by all manner of other veterans groups with equal force.
Mr Kevan Jones
When I was a Minister, I authorised a settlement proposal, because in my opinion large amounts of public money should not be wasted on lawyers when the case could be settled without the question of liability. Unfortunately, the settlement that I authorised was rejected by the lawyers involved. I am sorry, but I think that it was the individual veterans’ best chance of getting a large amount of compensation. The figure stretched to several million pounds.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend—there is no harm in my calling him that—who raises an important point, which has already been explored, quite properly. I was shocked by it. I do not know the details, but I have experience as a criminal barrister and know that every lawyer is under a duty to consult the client first. No lawyer ever makes the decision—although, apparently, in the case in question, very unusually, that was what happened. The client provides the instructions and makes the decision. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should talk about those events after the debate. I should like to know more.
I was talking about a case that went to the Court of Appeal, where the general merits of the claims were found to be extremely weak. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in March 2012, on a majority decision, in favour of the MOD. Significantly, all the justices, even those dissenting, recognised that the veterans would face extreme difficulties proving causation. That brings us back to the science.
The MOD continues to recognise the concerns of nuclear test veterans—I am always prepared to listen and like to think that I have an open mind, although I have spoken frankly this afternoon. However, there is no medical or legal evidence to support calls for compensation of the veterans as a group—and I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay says about seeking a benevolent fund, not a compensation fund. Any veteran who believes that service has had an impact on their health can submit a war pension claim. Where the evidence supports their claim, we will provide financial compensation. However, recent legal cases have shown that the incidence of that is far lower than many veterans organisations claim.
The argument for a £25 million benevolent fund to compensate veterans and family members affected by ionising radiation is flawed. The UK’s existing health, social and welfare support for its citizens and the specific support for all veterans make it unnecessary. Indeed, when we consider the public investment in the NHS and in the social and welfare fields, it can be argued that the financial value of that support far exceeds the monetary value of any compensation payment that the Government would pay.