John Baron MP is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
When compared with how other countries treat their nuclear test veterans, Britain has a shameful record. Ministry of Defence (MoD) references to war pensions do not wash. The very high rate of serious ill health amongst veterans’ offspring reinforces the fact that, although no side can lay hold to firm scientific evidence, there is a case to be answered. The Government needs to build on its good track record of acknowledging past wrongs, and finally recognise the debt of gratitude we owe to these veterans and their families.
During the 1950s and 1960s, over 20,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen, many of whom were on national service, took part in British nuclear tests in the South Pacific and Australia. They played an essential part in developing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, and their contribution to winning the Cold War can not be overstated.
The tests were carried out at the very beginning of the nuclear age, and the science was imperfectly understood. Precautions for the servicemen were primitive and inadequate. The only people wearing protective suits were the scientists. Many veterans believe their health, and that of their descendants, has been adversely affected by their presence during the nuclear tests.
The veterans feel forgotten, and some years ago came together to form the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), the principal charity which campaigns on their behalf. I am honoured to be their Patron, and since 2011 we have been running a cross-party campaign in Parliament.
The campaign has involved two stages. The first was to secure a Health Needs Audit from the MoD, to ease the path of our veterans through the NHS, which we have now secured. The second has been to secure official recognition of their service from the Government. This has not been forthcoming, and is very important not only to the diminishing number of veterans – only around 3,000 are still alive – but also to the descendents of those no longer with us. An acknowledgement from the Prime Minister, either orally or in writing, would make a huge difference.
A further aspect of our recognition campaign is to secure an ex gratia payment of £25 million from the Government to help establish a Benevolent Fund to distribute grants to veterans and their descendents to help with their care. Access to the Fund would be on the basis of need, not entitlement – thus reinforcing the fact our campaign is one of recognition, not compensation. For the record, the BNTVA has never taken part in any of the legal proceedings against the MoD.
Our recognition campaign was launched in Parliament last June, and over 80 MPs have expressed support for its aims. In October, I led a Parliamentary debate on the issue, during which I highlighted that Britain lies towards the bottom of the ‘international table of decency’ when it comes to how we treat our test veterans.
Canada and the US, for example, both offer payments to nuclear servicemen of £47,000 and £15,000 respectively. Crucially, no causal link between presence at a test and illness is required – this is in contrast to our war pensions scheme, which inevitably finds against veterans. The Isle of Man, our near neighbour, makes an £8,000 payment to any resident nuclear veteran. In all three cases, nuclear veterans receive free health care. Even the Russians ply their test veterans with medals and pensions, in recognition of their contribution.
Underlining the veterans’ case is the fact that their descendants suffer a much higher rate of congenital illness at birth. Against a national rate of around 2.5 per cent, over a third of veterans’ offspring have a serious medical condition. Figures obtained from French nuclear test veterans are broadly similar. Though this may not be scientific, it is nevertheless strong circumstantial evidence that the veterans’ service has cast a long shadow, and explains why the Benevolent Fund must be extended to veterans’ descendants.
Faced with the prevalence of ill health amongst descendants, a significant number of veterans opted to take the life-changing step not to have any children, and still more have terminated pregnancies rather than take the risk. These, together with the sad toll of multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, make up a ‘hidden story’ of anguish and uncertainty precipitated by service at nuclear tests.
The MoD’s defence of the indefensible is the existence of its war pensions scheme. But 90 per cent of nuclear test veterans have failed to get a war pension, in part because they find it difficult to establish a casual link between their presence at the tests and their ill health. This is despite the fact some of these veterans have received money through American schemes. Derek Spackman was a British navigator in an RAF Canberra aircraft. Flying out of Darwin, in 1954 he was tasked with sampling radiation levels following the American tests on the Marshall Islands. His widow was repeatedly denied a war pension by the MoD; however the US Government awarded her $75,000 for his service.
No doubt further information will come to light, as veterans respond to the BNTVA’s ‘call for evidence’. What comes through strongly is that the veterans have a compelling case, and that the goals of the campaign – official recognition and a £25m Benevolent Fund – are in truth very modest.
The BNTVA and I are hosting a Parliamentary film reception for veterans, their families and supporters on June 25. Having met the Prime Minister just before Easter, he is now going to ask further questions within government. Our hope is that he will recognise that our campaign is fair and just. After 60 years of waiting, the nuclear test veterans and their descendants deserve no less.