Troop Deployments

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th January 2001.

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Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford 12:00 am, 15th January 2001

If he will make a statement about the number of British troops deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo. [143716]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

In the week beginning 8 January 2001, the number of British troops deployed in Bosnia was 2,265, and in Kosovo it was 3,351.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

Next week, I shall visit Kosovo with the Royal Marines as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I expect to be asked a number of questions as a result of the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces last week. Is my right hon. Friend now able to give more details about the testing programme for depleted uranium, so that hon. Members taking part in the scheme will be able to enlighten members of the services during their visit to Kosovo?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The enhanced screening programme described by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces last week will require extensive consultation, not least with the national screening committee of the Department of Health, the Royal Society and other respected scientific and medical bodies. I hope that we shall be able to complete those consultations by the end of March. In addition, we shall invite the views of groups representing veterans.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon

Will the Secretary of State ignore the support that he is getting from Conservative Members on the question of depleted uranium and listen to Back Benchers from his own party and others who are extremely concerned about this issue? In particular, will he re-examine the parliamentary answers given to me on 17 November 1998 and on 28 January 1999 on depleted uranium? Those answers were clearly misleading in the light of last week's statement, and seem to be part of a cover-up on the issue.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman insists on using a term such as "cover-up" to describe a situation in which the Government have consistently, over many years, acknowledged the low-level risk that exists—for example, the risk to soldiers who go into the burned-out shell of a tank immediately after it has been hit by a depleted uranium shell. We have given clear instructions that they should approach such a vehicle only when wearing appropriate protective clothing.

Information on this matter has been published again and again, including on the Ministry of Defence website. It is readily available for the right hon. Gentleman to see, and I am sorry that he believes that it has been the subject of a cover-up, because the Ministry has tried extraordinarily hard over a long period to publish as much of this information as it possibly can.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government deserve to be congratulated on the actions that they took in Kosovo, without which there would undoubtedly have been no change in Serbia? However, is he also aware that I and many other hon. Members are very concerned about reports, some in today's newspapers, about the effects of depleted uranium, including cancer risks, on civilians in Kosovo and Bosnia, arising from the operation that took place there in 1995? Is he now willing to go further than the statement made last week in recognising the dangers involved, and to make a further statement to the House at an appropriate time?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

May I give my hon. Friend some of the background information on which our assessment has been made? It is important to consider this issue in context.

A specific study has been carried out by the school of epidemiology and health sciences at Manchester university, which considered the 53,000 people deployed to the Gulf against a control sample of members of the armed forces who were not deployed there. Of those who had served in the Gulf, 452 had died of all causes by 30 June 2000, compared with 439 in the control group, and 156 had died of disease, compared with 190 in the control group. It is perhaps particularly relevant to my hon. Friend's question that 64 Gulf veterans had died of all forms of cancer, compared with 68 in the control group.

If one deploys around 53,000 people in a particular situation, there is, sadly, a reasonable chance that a number of them will die of cancer, whether they are in the Gulf or the Balkans. Wherever they are in the United Kingdom, the same statistical incidence of cancers will arise.

There is absolutely no discrepancy in any of the statistics between those who have been to the Gulf or the Balkans and those who have remained in the United Kingdom. I ask my hon. Friend to consider the matter dispassionately, rather than simply relying on some of the more fanciful headlines that have appeared in the newspapers.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

If I may say so, the Secretary of State's defensive tone is redolent of the situation some years ago when my party was in government, and was accused of such things by the then Opposition. On 28 April 1999 the then Minister for the Armed Forces told the Select Committee on Defence, which was then probing the question of depleted uranium: if there is anything that we are not doing that we should be doing, I want to know about it and put it right … Moreover, Conservative Ministers in the previous Government were not aware of the impact of depleted uranium munitions. Why are Ministers now repudiating the Ministry of Defence advice, which was in wide circulation in Kosovo in the summer of 1999, and which was given to the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as to British forces? What is the Secretary of State doing now to protect British and other troops in Kosovo? What is he doing to protect civilian communities in Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia? Above all, what is being done to protect and educate children in that respect? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm reports from Brussels, following the first meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee under the Swedish presidency, that the European rapid reaction force will be armed with depleted uranium weapons?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I found the early part of the hon. Gentleman's question a little puzzling. We do not believe that there is any significant risk associated with the use of depleted uranium. I have described the precise circumstances in whit h both the present Government and the previous Government have recognised there is a risk. Details of that risk have been published, and instructions have been given to the armed forces to guard against it. As for the civilian population, efforts have recently been made by British forces to identify sites in the area of Kosovo for which they are responsible, where depleted uranium is likely to have been used. Those sites have been examined and no evidence of any increase in the level of background radiation has been found. Therefore risk of harm, either to members of Britain's armed forces or to the civilian population, does not arise from the use of depleted uranium—certainly so long after the events that led to the use of those shells in the first place.

I have made it clear on behalf of the Government that unless there is any clear scientific evidence to link the use of depleted uranium with any specific illnesses, Britain's armed forces will continue to use depleted uranium shells both nationally and in a multinational context.