Is the Overseas bill the end of Nuclear Veterans claims in the UK?

Johnny Mercer, who was involved in a tense exchange with Charles Byrne, who was giving evidence at the committee stage.

As part of the Overseas bill, the six-year long-stop restricts the ability of the armed forces personnel to being a civil claim against their employer. Charles Byrne, Director General of the Royal British Legion has raised concerns that it is a breach of the Armed Forces Covenant.

Alan Owen, founder of LABRATS has written to Mr Mercer on the 23th September expressing his concern that the vast majority of nuclear test veterans do not manifest injuries for decades. The nature of radiation injury means it invisibly alters cellular DNA. If radioactive particles are ingested this may be at a slow but steady rate for many years, with minor ailments leading eventually to a dramatic diagnosis and eventually death.

Ceri McDade, Chairman of the BNTVA, also has written to Mr Mercer to express the BNTVA's concerns, requesting an amendment to the bill on 24th September 2020.

The main concern for the Nuclear Veterans is the inclusion of a 6 year claim against the government. This will make it impossible for the veterans to claim war pensions. Mr Mercer claims that the legislation is limited to 6 years from point of knowledge of injury, so it does not cause a problem.

However, in 2009, the High Court case of 1000 veterans was fought and eventually lost. It was lost on the same issue. The MoD argued that some of the veterans 'knew' they were ill when they joined the BNTVA in the 1980s, when it began campaigning. Others 'knew' when they first fell ill and wondered IF there was a link. The claimants argued they could have knowledge only when a doctor confirmed a possible link many years later.

It is also worth bearing in mind the declassification of documents decades after historical events may provide evidence not previously available to support such claims, but under the new legislation this may make them impossible to pursue.

Sue Davis, whose brother Anthony was also an RAF pilot, received a series of letters from the MoD written in 1964. He died from leukaemia 6 years after the tests. The MoD told her: "There are no other records of RAF personnel having suffered ill-effects from radiation during their service on Christmas Island." Documents proving EXACTLY that have since been declassified, and many forms of leukaemia now merit a war pension as a result.

In 1983 when Margaret Thatcher ordered the first study into the health claims of the veterans, Parliament was told there were 12,000 servicemen involved, as well as 1,500 civilians and 1,500 Australians. Since then the number of test participants confirmed by the MoD and used in the official NRPB studies has risen - to 22,347 in 1988; 21,358 in 1993; and 21,357 in 2003. The MoD has never explained how 15k participants shot up to 22k, or why they had not been found sooner

In 2018 documents were released from the Major years showing a discussion about a veteran called John Hall, who worked in decontamination at Christmas Island and later developed hairy cell leukaemia. Officials said it was a '1 in a million' chance this was linked to his service.  In 1999, a MoD official said of HMS Diana, a ship ordered to sail through a plume of fallout for two days: "The manner in which this ship was employed at these two tests has been studied and I can assure you that... due regard was show to the exposure of her crew to ionising radiation... in the event, doses to her crew were insignificant." BUT IN 2009, on the eve of the High Court case, the MoD for the first time admitted that 205 RAF air crew, 129 decontamination ground crew, the 282 crew of HMS Diana and about 1,300 others in specific operations WERE probably exposed to radiation. In all, about 10% of those at all the tests. 

Conclusion In summary, over the years the MoD evidence has changed, scientific knowledge has evolved, classified documents have been published, and even publicly-confirmed contamination levels at former test sites in Australia and elsewhere have changed significantly with further knowledge and investigation. In the case of likely radiation exposure, therefore, it is impossible - and deeply unjust - to limit claims to any 6 year period. 6 years from the blast would be just as limiting as 6 years from knowledge of injury, in the case of a veteran, as it may be 10 years or 20 years from that knowledge that science can prove it. For example, Brunel University is currently doing genetic testing of veterans and children to see if there is a link between the tests and birth defects. If one is found, no doubt the MoD would argue the veteran or child 'knew' there was an injury when they agreed to take part in the study, several years earlier, or soon after they were born. Yet if science can finally provide evidence of a link, those families would be denied not only an apology by the UK govt but also financial compensation for conditions which may be severely limiting. This bill needs amending. At the time of this blog, no response has been received from Mr Mercer. Please contact your MP and voice your objections to this bill, whilst the bill is welcome for vexatious claims against the veterans, the inclusion of the 6 year period allows the MoD to exclude the Nuclear Veterans from any claims.

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