18 years since this debate - Still no Recognition for UK Nuclear Veterans

On the 4th December 2002, the House of Commons debated the Nuclear Test Veterans and compensation. The debate is recorded in Hansard. This blog reflects on the debate and why 18 years later, the test veterans are still waiting for recognition.

Extracts from Hansard

Mr Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

The opportunity to hold such a debate is fairly rare. I shall not give an account of the illnesses suffered by people who attended, witnessed and took part in the preparations for nuclear tests on behalf of this country. Instead, I shall focus on some of the ways in which we can remedy grievances. Those who took part in the tests as well as their children and grandchildren feel that the men who had often risked their lives in war prior to the tests—in which they took part at the behest of the Government—have been poorly treated in the past 50 or so years.

I do not intend to criticise the present Government heavily. Successive Governments have taken the same stance towards claims for compensation or improved pensions on behalf of the service men who took part in the tests. It has been argued throughout that there is no overwhelming medical evidence—it is only marginal—of a link between participation in the tests and particular illnesses. Such matters were revealed in the analysis of the test outcomes by the National Radiological Protection Board and, in some cases of leukaemia, a war pension was granted when a link to the tests was demonstrated. That is based on a slightly increased likelihood demonstrated in the data that have been analysed to date. The Government have taken that position throughout.

We need to create an atmosphere of greater objectivity and consensus building. Research has demonstrated that many of those who took part in the tests have since suffered terrible illnesses; there have also been cases of illness among their offspring. We must consider how to attribute that information to the circumstances of their lives; what they did in their lives when they were service men and later. So far the Government have commissioned work through the NRPB, which is currently undertaking its third study of the data produced by the examination of the records of 20,000-plus service men who attended the tests at various times during the 1950s and early 1960s.

I am worried that there is no proper consensus on whether that is the correct basis for research into illnesses. I note in particular the approach to similar circumstances taken by other countries. We are not alone in having carried out nuclear tests involving our service men. At that time we had a Commonwealth on which we could call, and some Commonwealth countries provided men. I draw attention to the example of the New Zealand Government, who have grant-aided the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association to provide a basis for that organisation's own research. That is a positive idea for two reasons.

First, the test veterans argue that they are overwhelmed by the scale of a large and understandably secretive Department—the Ministry of Defence—and the weight of the scientific establishment, against which they must contend purely with voluntary funds. The New Zealand Government have set a good example in choosing to grant-aid their veterans so that they can buy their own research. That provides a proper balance with the science of the matter. Secondly, we should genuinely consider whether there are different ways of looking at how to research the issue.

Thus far, our approach has been to take account of the scale of the issue—more than 20,000 people were involved in tests—without, perhaps, always recognising the different circumstances of individual test veterans. Some people were clearly exposed to a greater risk than others. The Sunday Mirror has carried many stories about the issue. By simply taking the group as one swathe, without sufficient differentiation of either the test or the circumstances of the military operation in which a person was involved, the precise circumstances will be concealed by the sheer scale of the data which the NRPB will be examining.

At the end of my speech I will call for far finer slicing of the data, to attribute the data to individual operational circumstances and particular tests. If we did that, we would be able to identify whether pockets of occurrences might be concealed in the overwhelming evidence of a large number of people who may have had little exposure to danger during an operation.

The United States has had an extensive programme of tests and it operates a policy for veterans for whom there is a presumed cause for one of 15 illnesses from which they may suffer. If a person can demonstrate that they were involved in a particular test and developed one of those illnesses, there is a presumption, which does not require a test in court, that they should be compensated for that experience. I do not understand why we choose not to follow a similar path to the one taken by the United States; that great Government are prepared to take such a step.

The Australian Government have also, to a lesser extent, adopted a presumed cause approach. In my correspondence with the Minister—I always appreciate the courtesy and the length of the answers that he has given to me on the various questions that I have asked—he hints at one possible reason, which is that factors such as the small size of the nuclear test participant group appear to be relevant. That suggests that we can take a straightforward approach to the issue because some countries say that only a relatively small number of people were affected. It also suggests that the British Government are apprehensive about a large number of claimants and, therefore, the substantial cost associated with dealing with the problem. That does not reflect well on our integrity and honesty. Surely, damage is the same whether it is done to a citizen of New Zealand, Australia or America, or to one of our own citizens. We should be prepared to take the experience of other countries into account.

Some of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association's research has been commissioned in this country. We welcome that because it provides us with greater opportunities to examine different dimensions of the problem. Research is being undertaken in Dundee and I am aware that the MOD has taken a particular ​ view of the work of Sue Rabbit-Roff. It has also been commissioned in the university of St. Andrews. The other research that I am aware of is that at Massey university in New Zealand.

I should hope that we are fully engaged with the New Zealand Government on what they have set off through their approach, although I have not been reassured by the answers that the Minister has given me. I have asked whether we have made representations to the New Zealand Government and the answer was no. I have asked whether there has been any substantial engagement with the issue, and was told that there has not. I hope that we are aware of the research activity, and that we are engaged sympathetically in trying to understand what that research is seeking to achieve and in liaising with those who commissioned it.

I come to the rather legalistic way in which the issue has been addressed. I represent a former mining constituency, in which miners had to fight for many years to demonstrate the damage caused to their health by coal dust in their lungs and the use of vibrating tools. That culminated in a successful action in 1997, and gradually and painfully, in the drawing down of compensation for the people involved.

I am well aware of the lengthy civil process that can be involved in pursuing such claims, and I would not wish that on anyone, particularly not on a voluntary organisation. The one advantage that mine workers had was a well resourced trade union to fight the case on their behalf and to commission the best possible legal advice. I note that civil cases are being considered at the moment, and I would not wish that process on those pursuing them; it would be long, painful, and might, if the case is eventually proved, lead to a large class action.

There are far better ways of pursuing such issues, and one can see that even in the mining industry. In the early 1970s, the Government correctly understood that pneumococcus was a major disease in mining, and that there should be a straightforward compensation scheme available to people who could demonstrate that they had experienced it in their lives. I recommend a simple process, and the presumed cause approach that I have suggested would provide that simplicity.

If a case went to court, one would have to demonstrate negligence, and consider the advice that was available. We must recognise that our knowledge is much greater than it was then, and some of the precautions that, frankly, we ridicule now may well have seemed to be the best ways of protecting people. We would also have to show whether there was intent, and that causes concern. I have received correspondence from the Minister that says that there was no intent to test the effect that the weapons had on human beings. In a quotation from the Sunday Mirror, there is a reference to a declassified document, dated 20 May 1953. The article says:

"A report to the Chiefs of Staff, headed 'Atomic Weapons Trials' states: 'The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection.'"

I do not know whether that approach was adopted.

I ask the Minister to consider whether we can release the full public record of those tests now for proper scrutiny. The bits that have crept out show that part of ​the purpose was indeed to understand what happened when nuclear weapons were exploded and a person was in reasonably close proximity to them. Certainly, the evidence shows that there was the intention to understand how equipment reacted to weapons, and human beings then had to clean down that equipment. They were exposed to the risk partly through that. If that was part of the purpose of the tests, there should now be candour about it.

I have talked to my father—who was a career naval officer—and my mother about that time, and it is clear that their generation's attitude towards risk was very different from ours. People had lived through a world war in which they had seen friends die in violent ways, and many of them were trained to say, "Well, it is our job to take risks." That might have been the case, but people who are placed in harm's way deserve to know something about what that harm might be and what the exercise that they are involved in might achieve.

I see no evidence of such candour towards service men at that time. It appears that advice and information were minimal and perfunctory. It is worth reflecting on the culture of the time, which is evidenced by the recent disclosures at Porton Down that service men could be used legitimately as guinea pigs; they were given minimal information, and sometimes—one hopes in extreme cases—they were deceived. That that was the concept of a service man's role at that time in our country's history should be addressed honestly.

It is easy to make judgements now about attitudes then, and I am not seeking to do that. I merely think that we should be honest about what might have happened, and about the contexts of these tests. Therefore, I hope that as part of this exercise, we can be open with people about the purpose and meaning of these tests, and about how we communicated what they were about to those who participated in them.

First, we should consider the basis of presumed cause in dealing with certain kinds of illnesses where they occur among nuclear test veterans. Secondly, we should re-examine the test data and seek to differentiate it with regard to the circumstances of the operation in which people were involved and the individual test in which they participated. Thirdly, we should look at empowering the test veterans associations by providing them with resources so that they can commission their own research and vigorously question the science of all of this. The Minister will almost certainly respond by discussing the science as it is perceived by the Ministry of Defence. I want there to be proper engagement with that subject; we should debate that science in a fully informed way and with a greater degree of consensus than has been achieved until now. Fourthly, I want a proper disclosure of the purpose of these tests and how we communicated what they were about to the service men of that time.

We should give respect to those who participated in these tests and followed the orders that they were given. They did their duty. We have a duty to act with integrity towards them and their families.

Mr. Howarth

I am sure that everyone will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for expanding his point. I have a great deal of time for him, as he knows. It would be easy for the Opposition to jump on the bandwagon in support of a newspaper campaign, but I do not intend to do that. I will, however, have a little fun at the expense of the Minister, if I may. In 1986, a Mr. Neil Kinnock, whom some hon. Members in the Labour party might remember, wrote to Ken McGinley—then chairman of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association—saying:"The next Labour Government, as a matter of urgency and priority, will set up a full judicial inquiry."

Four years later, Bob Clay—a Labour MP—promoted a private Member's Bill calling for compensation for the veterans. The Bill had the support of the current Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Leader of the House, the former Secretary of State for Scotland—the late Donald Dewar— the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the current Secretary-General of NATO, and others.

That was a strong supporting cast, yet the Government have not offered a judicial inquiry.

I stand by the pledge that my predecessors gave when the Conservatives were in office. The Ministry of Defence owes a duty of care to everyone serving in the armed forces and a duty to compensate those injured in the course of service. If the Sunday Mirror has produced evidence that strongly asserts a causal link between participation in the test programme and any form of injury or illness, the Government should properly assess the validity of the new claims. I understand that the Legal Services Commission recently awarded the veterans funding to undertake a further review. I hope that that will be forthcoming and that the MOD will approach it in the spirit that both Government and Opposition Members would like it to have.

I have spelt out the Opposition's principled position, but add a qualification: despite the conclusions of many rigorous scientific investigations, anecdotal evidence remains to suggest at least the possibility of a link between participation in the programme and various examples of long-term injury. Anyone who has seen pictures on the television of the mushroom cloud and men standing there with their hands covering their eyes must feel discomfort at the apparent lack of protection that those men were given.

No matter how strong the statistical evidence to the contrary, we must be absolutely certain of it before we dismiss the claims of ex-servicemen who believe that ​ they have suffered terribly as a result of the tests. I therefore draw hon. Members' attention to a speech made some years ago by the now Minister for Transport, then a Defence Minister, in which he said:

"The vast majority of personnel who were present during tests were mustered in areas that were known to be safe from the effects of blast, heat and any prompt or residual radiation. At Christmas Island, for example, the muster points were in the areas of the main camp and the port, each of which was some 25 miles from the detonations."—[Official Report, 4 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 1009.]

I do not doubt the truth of that statement, but I emphasise the first three words: "The vast majority" of personnel were in safe areas. Will the Minister assure us that all personnel were safe, or is there a chance that some were not? Although the vast majority undoubtedly were safe, reports from a number of veterans suggest that a very small minority may not have been. Is there a chance that some veterans are suffering as a result of their participation, but that their numbers are too small to show up in a survey that encompasses all 22,000 personnel who took part? If the vast majority were safe, that raises a question about why all the personnel were included in a survey that was intended to show up any differences between the mortality rates of the veterans and of the civilian population.

If it is possible to separate out those veterans who may have been exposed to a higher risk during the programme of tests, that group should be analysed relative to the control group. Obviously, it cannot be a self-selected group of veterans who took part in the tests and subsequently fell ill. As I mentioned, from a group of 20,000 veterans, more than 3,000 would have been expected to die in any case. However, I remind the Minister that even if only a handful of veterans have suffered as a result of their participation, we owe it to them to find that out and compensate them if possible.

I was very touched by the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). To the layman, it must seem almost an open-and-shut case that a pilot flew through a mushroom cloud and subsequently developed various ailments. That also points to a new development: the genetic effect on subsequent families since the tests of 1983 and 1992. The Minister might like to address that. I shall conclude my speech now to give him a chance to respond to the many points that have been made.

The full debate can be viewed here:



The British Nuclear Test Veterans are still awaiting the outcome of the medal review which has now been underway for almost 2 years. They are awaiting the next instalment of the Public Health England study and are eagerly awaiting the Brunel DNA study undertaken by the NCCF. The LABRATS snapshot Health study is also due at the end of this year. Instead of full disclosure of the documents, they have been further restricted from the National Archives.

Regardless of the outcomes of these studies, the families and veterans are still suffering, they continue to fight an invisible enemy. As per the findings of the Nuclear Families study performed by Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, which concluded:

"This study identifies that there is still a diverse range of issues within this community which create a need for further support. The descendant community experiences trauma from perceived risks, and there are issues arising from mental and somatic health challenges. It also demonstrates the considerable support which is currently provided by non-governmental sources, with credit to the committees of the New BNTVA and the NCCF for facilitating remembrance, social events and community support. This study recommends that the families of UK atomic veterans are provided with a specialist counselling service to support their understanding of their experiences and the likelihood any risks. This study also recommends greater specialist signposting for NHS professionals on the challenges arising for the descendants of UK atomic veterans; including autoimmune conditions, mental health challenges and addiction issues"

The full study findings can be found here:


It is a tragedy that the UK Government did not follow the US Government and adopt a RECA style program. Thousands of hours, millions of pounds, so many lives lost. We know that the evidence of exposure exists, they know it exists, it is time to recognise these servicemen for what they did.

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