Christmas Island Nuclear Testing: Compensation

Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill (Money) – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 21 May 2019.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Jack.)

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 5:13, 21 May 2019

William Caldwell was a 19-year-old merchant seaman when he was sent from Glasgow to Newcastle to join the crew of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Sovereign. He thought he would be refuelling warships for the Pakistani and Indian navies, and in August 1957 he boarded, carrying his worldly possessions in a hold-all. He knew nothing of the Indian ocean, and far less of Christmas Island. However, William was about to find himself at the epicentre of Britain’s nuclear testing programme.

Operation Grapple was four series of British tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs carried out in 1957 and 1958 at Malden Island and Kiritimati—Christmas Island—in the Pacific ocean as part of the British hydrogen bomb programme. Nine nuclear explosions took place, culminating in the United Kingdom becoming the third recognised possessor of thermonuclear weapons and the restoration of the special relationship with the United States, with the 1958 US-UK mutual defence agreement.

I first heard William’s story when his son Robert visited my office in Glasgow. He told us of his father’s memories of the Grapple Y test on 28 April 1958. William was down below when they were ordered on to deck. He hurried up wearing only sandals and shorts. The crew were told that they were going to witness something special that nobody else had seen and that it was important to cover their eyes with their hands until after the flash. At that point, the Wave Sovereign was about 12 miles from the detonation site. William vividly remembered being both astounded and horrified when he saw the bones of his hands lit up in utter clarity, as though he was looking at an X-ray.

William remembered the cloud. The crew remained on deck to watch with dark fascination as the cloud formed and remained suspended in the sky above them. A particularly upsetting thing for William’s son Robert is how much the vision of this cloud haunted his father. Having and raising a family provided William with a distraction, but as his children grew up and he got older, this memory began to trouble him greatly, and he had many nightmares about the cloud.

Those on board the Wave Sovereign were exposed to gamma and beta radiation from the initial blast and then nuclear fallout, which included alpha particles. Alpha particles are the most ionising, and therefore most dangerous, of nuclear radiations, but they cannot penetrate far and can easily be stopped by a single sheet of paper, or indeed protective clothing. However, if they are ingested in water, food or air, they can wreak havoc on the body’s DNA. After the cloud went up, a black rain fell, followed by dead fish floating to the surface of the water. The crew netted those fish and ate them, delighted by the convenience of their bounty and unaware of the risks.

But Britain was aware of the risks before the tests began. Historical documents released from state archives show that in 1951, William Penney, the chief scientist at Aldermaston, demanded insurance for scientific staff in case any developed radiogenic diseases. Admiral Arthur Torlesse said that he would only order his men into danger

“in the knowledge that the Admiralty accept liability for those killed or injured on duty”.

On 20 May 1953, the Defence Research Policy Committee discussed how troops would be affected by the blasts. It said:

The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection.”

In 1955, Prime Minister Anthony Eden was warned that if scientists were to build an H-bomb, it could damage troops’ DNA. A letter headed “10 Downing Street” and dated 14 November says:

“The Prime Minister saw the report from Sir Harold Himsworth about the report of the Committee considering the genetic effects of Nuclear Radiation. His comment was: ‘A pity, but we cannot help it’.”

In a draft report ahead of Grapple Y, Air Commodore Denis Wilson, the senior medical officer on the taskforce, said that he expected servicemen to die. He wrote:

“It is emphasised that in the event of the expected yield being obtained or increased there will almost certainly be in addition to considerable material damage, casualties to individuals, and this should be taken into consideration.”

William’s health problems began shortly after. Following an unrelated accident on board the Wave Sovereign, he was taken to a military hospital, and from there had to pay to be transported home on board an RAF bomber. After four years of stomach problems, in 1962 he underwent an operation to remove an ulcer, but it was discovered that his stomach was so badly damaged that half of it would have to be removed. Coincidently—or, indeed, not—another test veteran, Ken McGinley, who went on to establish the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, required the same operation in 1962. This is a pattern we do see repeated.

In response to the health concerns of some nuclear test veterans in the 1980s, the Ministry of Defence commissioned three studies of mortality and cancer among nuclear test personnel. These were conducted by the independent National Radiological Protection Board. Three analyses were carried out. The latest report, published in 2003, concluded that overall levels of mortality and cancer incidence in nuclear test veterans have continued to be like those in a matched service control group and lower than in the general population.

These findings form the basis of the war pension scheme policy on nuclear test veteran claims. However, there are three glaring problems: this takes no account of non-cancerous health problems, and in fact William’s stomach problem was not considered under that scheme; it does not consider the health conditions of the offspring of test veterans; and it does not include RFA personnel who were present in a support capacity. Currently, there is no specific compensation fund for this group of veterans, whose numbers are dwindling.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The hon. Lady is making a very good speech. When I was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence in 2009, a settlement proposal was made to the test veterans’ lawyers. Having reviewed the file recently, I can confirm that the barrister did pass that over, but for some reason the very generous settlement offer was refused.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am happy to look into that and ask questions about it.

Veterans’ numbers are dwindling, but there are thought to be about 130,000 descendants, who report 10 times the normal level of birth defects, organ malformations and leukaemia. William’s children all suffer from bone or spinal problems, and his granddaughter’s hips were back to front when she was born. However, the MOD continues to deny liability. In 2007, research from New Zealand proved that genetic damage in veterans was three times worse than in survivors of the Chernobyl disaster. Despite Britain agreeing to pay Australia £20 million to settle claims arising from nuclear contamination, the Government fight such compensation claims at home.

In response to a parliamentary question from Dr Offord last year, the Minister set out the eligibility for claims. He said:

“Any veteran who believes they have suffered ill health due to Service is eligible to claim no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme. War Pensions are payable in respect of illness or injury due to Service in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces before 6 April 2005, with the benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Decisions are medically certified and follow consideration of Service and medical evidence and carry full rights of appeal to an independent tribunal. Where the evidence supports a causal link to Service, entitlement will be given.”

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

My hon. Friend mentioned Australia and the compensation that was paid to veterans and indigenous Australians as a result of tests there. Is she aware that the amount offered—£20 million—is considered pathetically inadequate?

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

That is of course the point I was making, and I do not for a moment suggest that that comes anywhere near what would be required properly to compensate people there. The point I am making is that there is an admission of guilt within that.

It is difficult enough to prove the causal link between service and illness for nuclear test veterans, but for a merchant seaman on board a Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service vessel, supporting the military operation, there is not even the ability to access a war pension. Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish addressed that issue during his time as Minister for war pensions. He wrote to Mr McGinley of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, stating that anyone who was present at the tests, even in a support capacity, would be considered, for the purpose of war pensions, a veteran. However, that classification has never been recognised.

William was told by the Navy that he was not in hostile waters and therefore could not be considered a veteran. The civil service has said that because he was not on board for more than two years— which, due to his unrelated injury, could not happen—he could not be considered for a civil service pension. My predecessor, John Robertson, was also involved in William’s case, and through his intervention William did receive his veteran’s pin; but that is no compensation for the decades where the state has simply ignored his contribution.

Canadian servicemen were ordered to lie in trenches while the tests were carried out; they have secured compensation. American servicemen who witnessed explosions over land were compensated in Reagan’s famous scheme, but it appears that Britain is the last nuclear power on earth to deny that its own nuclear weapons are capable of causing its service personnel any harm.

Following a long campaign by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, £25 million was allocated from LIBOR funds to finance an aged veterans fund to alleviate suffering and increase wellbeing. The aged veterans fund went live in April 2016 and the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, through its nuclear community charity fund, received approval to launch an initial portfolio of five projects benefiting the nuclear community. That has been welcomed by the community, but it is a million miles from the compensation that those veterans and their families deserve. Men were deliberately used as guinea pigs in a macabre scientific experiment, and their health was sacrificed simply to prove our worth to America.

I would ask the Minister, first, if William was a civilian, how was it that he ended up in Christmas Island without any say in his deployment? Secondly, what plans do the Government have to admit their responsibility in this episode and compensate all those affected—military and support crew? Finally, when can we expect the Government to honour Lord Mackay’s classification of RFA personnel as veterans?

Sadly, William Caldwell died last year, but his son Robert continues to fight for what his family are owed—an admission of guilt, an apology from the Government and financial recompense for the years of suffering this family have experienced, and continue to experience. But Robert takes some small comfort in knowing that his father is now at peace from the nightmares.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 5:28, 21 May 2019

I begin by thanking Carol Monaghan for securing the debate. She raises a very sensitive matter, which has been brought to this House on many occasions.

Before I go into the detail of the subject matter, it is important for us to understand that this is not a question of the thermonuclear testing and Britain’s decision to use and develop a nuclear deterrent, although our parties may have different opinions on that; this is to do with the actual positioning—the geographical location—and the manner in which the tests were conducted in the south Pacific in the 1950s.

The hon. Lady spoke about Operation Grapple—the decision to pursue a nuclear deterrent. That did involve the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, who, I make it very clear, are civilians; they are not part of our armed forces in that sense. It is important that we express and put on record on behalf of the House our gratitude for what they do, not just then but today. Without them, it would not be possible for our Navy—our naval ships—to maintain the food, fuel, stores and ammunition that they require to keep our seas safe and protect our shores. We are very grateful to all those who serve in the Royal Navy and in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. In present times, the RFA provides logistical support in the areas I have just mentioned and are involved in humanitarian operations, disaster relief and help with counter-piracy.

This debate focuses on a very sensitive issue and I know there are strong feelings on both sides of the House. It is a highly complicated issue, so it is worth breaking the subject matter down into three separate stages. The first stage relates to the facts of the matter. The UK’s atmospheric nuclear test programme experimented on weapons, not personnel. The weapons were the focus of the operations in the south Pacific. Many thousands of service personnel deployed to the south Pacific, including Christmas Island, from 1956 to 1961, were in support of testing the UK’s first thermo- nuclear weapon system. The hon. Lady alluded to 17 RFA ships being deployed in support of operations. None was exposed to direct radiation beyond the background radiation that was expected. Only the Royal Navy’s HMS Diana came into direct contact with radiation, as she was expressly required to sail through the nuclear plume after the explosion had taken place.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

That simply is not the case, as I explained in my speech. The Wave Sovereign was there. It was present. The crew were on board and the crew witnessed the blast.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am not denying that they were in the vicinity. It is the distance and proximity to the explosion that we are talking about. It is worth putting it in context. Other nations went through these experiments. It is difficult to compare apples with pears regarding the proximity of any of the individuals who witnessed the tests. I simply make it clear that the locality of the ships, in comparison with HMS Diana, was very different indeed. That is all I can say about that.

Other Royal Navy and RFA vessels were located in safe zones many, many miles away from the bomb’s ground zero—or surface zero, as it is called at sea—from which it was detonated. The role of the RFA vessels was to restock and refuel Royal Navy support ships that were closer to it. They were withdrawn from those locations before detonation. Otherwise, radiation risk to Royal Navy and RFA crews, and all other participants, was low, with prevention measures that reflected best practice in the contemporary understanding of the day.

The second point relates to the subsequent reports and investigations. As I mentioned, this issue has been looked at in the past. Protection, health and welfare of all those involved in the tests were in place, and that is confirmed by well documented safety measures and monitoring during the tests. To date, there is no expert evidence of excess illness or mortality among nuclear test veterans in general that could be linked to their participation in the tests.

In response to health concerns raised in the 1980s, the Government commissioned an independent study from the National Radiological Protection Board. This looked at mortality for all causes, as well as cancer incidence and mortality. Three reports followed in 1988, 1993 and 2003, which compared over 20,000 participants in nuclear tests with a similar-sized control group of non-deployed service personnel. They found no detectable effect on participants’ life expectancy or risk of developing most cancers, but did find a small increase in the risk of leukaemia, excluding chronic lymphatic leukaemia, with clinical onset in the first 25 years after presence at the tests. A fourth report is now expected next spring. Should those findings produce new evidence, with new ways of measuring such things, that will be reflected in policy.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

One issue that I raised was the offspring of test veterans. It seems that they are not being included in the medical tests, but we know that the incidence of leukaemia and other cancers in their offspring is 10 times that of the general population.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Because it is an independent study, I do not have the details of the fourth report, but I will write to the hon. Lady to confirm whether the offspring are included. I hope that they are. It would make sense, because often these things can get passed down, as we saw with the tests after Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

On the family risk, as part of the compensation that was offered and never taken forward, a study was done in, I think, 2009 of family members. The Minister may well want to look at that study. If he wants access to that file, it is under my papers and I am quite happy to give him the authorisation.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The fact that the right hon. Gentleman had to deal with this when he was a Defence Minister reflects how long this issue has been alive. I would be grateful for any further information that helped us. Ultimately, we want to do the best we can for those who are serving and who have served.

On the pension and compensation issues that are involved, the Government’s policy on claims arising from nuclear test programmes is based on detailed and impartial analysis of world literature, including the National Radiological Protection Board reports. A revised MOD policy statement for armed forces personnel was published in December 2017, and it takes into account scientific studies that have been published since 2003. It is important to make it clear that the Government do not accept in general that those present at sites were exposed to harmful levels of ionising radiation. RFA personnel are covered by the mercantile marine scheme, based on the personal injury civilian scheme, which was extant during world war two. Like the scheme, the MMS applies only in wartime to war injuries and is enacted specifically for such events. Most recently, that was relevant in the 1990-91 Gulf war. The UK atmospheric tests were a peacetime operation, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

It is absolutely correct that this was a peacetime operation, and I thank the Minister for the thoughtful way he is taking us through this issue. I was approached by an elderly constituent who was there—he was serving in the armed forces at the time—and he had to turn his back and all the rest of it. He said, “I’ve not been ill”, but he did say, “All my teeth fell out not terribly long after the test.” The point he put to me was that because it was peacetime, there was no idea of any campaign medal or decoration for those who were there, but he asked whether any other consideration could be given by the MOD, such as perhaps a letter signed by the Minister or somebody, saying, “You were there and we recognise your contribution.”

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman, perhaps one to one, to discuss that. The issue of medals is always sensitive. As he is aware, many campaign groups are seeking to provide recognition for valour and conduct in peace and war operations. Recognition of service is always very important. Thanks to our predecessors, we are able to enjoy the freedoms that we do, so I would be delighted to meet him to discuss that further.

I stress that RFA personnel are civilian and not military and, therefore, they come under a different form of compensation. They are covered by the industrial injuries disability scheme and are certainly entitled to claim civilian damages, should they wish to pursue that, but that is separate from the strand of support and compensation that those in the armed forces would pursue.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

This debate is about establishing compensation and giving those veterans or the people in the vicinity justice. Does the Minister think that justice has happened at this point?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am not a lawyer and it is not for me to make those judgments; it is for me to clarify—[Interruption.] I will not be pressed to give a judgment—that would be wrong. I am sorry the hon. Gentleman feels the need to press me on it. There needs to be a process that anybody who feels they require justice can pursue, and it is my job to make that clear. I hope he will agree.

This is an important issue and one that concerns to me. We must provide clarity in the upcoming fourth report. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for addressing these matters this evening. The Government continue to recognise the work of all those who participated in the British nuclear testing programme, both civilian and RFA personnel and those in the armed forces. They contributed a great deal to keeping our nation secure during the cold war and since by ensuring the UK was equipped with the appropriate nuclear capability. I assure the entire House that the Government will continue to monitor closely the health risks to participants, and we look forward to the fourth report, which is expected to be published next year.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I raised the recognition by Lord MacKay that RFA personnel would be considered as veterans for the purpose of war pensions. The Minister has not addressed that. I wonder whether he will before he finishes.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am happy to write to the hon. Lady in more detail. It was my plan to do that anyway after this debate. She has raised several points. I do not have all the details now, but I would be happy to share them with her in closer context, and I will certainly look at this issue. I would again make the distinction between the different models of support that apply to people in civilian and military roles, which I alluded to earlier, but I would happy to write to her with more details.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.