Billericay MP John Baron, an Opposition Whip, spoke in the House of Commons about British veterans of nuclear tests yesterday. He explained that while the issue itself is not new, recent scientific evidence from New Zealand suggests that radiation exposure has caused people to suffer terribly. He went on:
"The history to the debate needs to be understood. Between 15,000 and 20,000 servicemen took part in Britain’s nuclear tests, which included Operation Grapple on Malden Island and Christmas Island in 1957-58. Other tests took place at Monte Bello islands, Maralinga, and Emu field. It is thought that only about 3,000 veterans are alive today. Many of those involved believe they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation that resulted in their own ill health and that of their descendents.
Veterans and their families seeking redress in the form of a war pension encounter a frustrating tribunal system that is both inconsistent and subject to delays. For many years, the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association or BNTVA has campaigned for recognition for its 800 or so surviving veteran members, and many more widows and offspring, but successive Governments have used a controversial series of reports by the National Radiological Protection Board or NRPB to insist that no harm was done."
Mr Baron has been working in tandem with Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson. They undertook a two day inquiry. Veterans and scientists took part, but the Ministry of Defence would not. Mr Baron and Dr Gibson have asked the Government for a similar study to that carried out in New Zealand.
The new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Kevan Jones, made some encouraging noises in reponse:
"I make an offer tonight to meet the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and representatives of British nuclear test veterans next week, so that we can discuss the possibility of taking forward a study on health experiences and issues associated with veterans’ offspring. Once that meeting has taken place, I propose to ask officials to discuss with the experts the best way to design and develop a possible research programme. It is important that this study and the terms of reference for it are correct, and that we are not asking people to do the impossible. That is a commitment that I give today."
It is right to be wary of MPs when they say something "isn’t party political". It often means that a most undesirable consensus has emerged. But here we have a thoroughly commendable example of two MPs from different parties rolling up their sleeves to get something good done.
Mr Baron and Dr Gibson are this page’s MPs of the day.