Independent inquiry into Gulf war illnesses
James Meikle, health correspondent, The Guardian, Monday June 14, 2004

An unprecedented independent inquiry into whether more than 5,000 veterans of the first Gulf war became ill as a result of their service will be announced today.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, the former law lord, will conduct hearings in central London in the next few months and pose a political dilemma for the government which has refused to authorise a public inquiry for the past six years.

He is expected to invite current and former ministers, civil servants, health and scientific experts, as well as veterans and their families to establish the medical consequences of their service.

It is understood that Lord Lloyd, a law lord until 1999 and a former attorney general to the Prince of Wales, is determined to begin with no preconceptions about the veterans' claims that they were made ill, but believes an inquiry will help settle the long-standing sores between former service personnel and the Ministry of Defence.

"I was delighted to be invited to conduct an independent public inquiry into Gulf war illnesses. My intention is to open the inquiry as soon as possible and to hold hearings in public," he said yesterday.

The arrangements for an inquiry have been prepared in confidence, leaving the government little time to decide how to react. Although Lord Lloyd will not have formal legal powers, ministers will have to consider how to respond to invitations to give evidence. Refusal to cooperate could be damaging politically.

The pressure for an inquiry, first made by the Royal British Legion in 1998, has intensified since February when an eight-year legal battle by more than 2,000 veterans collapsed because there was insufficient scientific evidence to pursue their case. The Legal Services Commission which paid an estimated 4m in legal aid, withdrew further funding after reviews of research could find no specific cause for the veterans' health problems.

But their lawyers said there was no doubt many of them were ill and that their suffering was genuine. They called for an independent inquiry and urged the government to instigate a "process of conciliation" with veterans' groups.

It is thought the inquiry will be funded by anonymous independent donations by people not directly involved in the controversy.

Lord Morris of Manchester, who has been involved behind the scenes, said last night: "I hope this will clear an impasse that has been of deep concern to the ex-service community. There is no one more suited or well-qualified to lead an inquiry."

Other eminent figures are expected to help in the inquiry. They include Sir Michael Davies, former clerk to the parliaments, who chaired the management board of the House of Lords. Former presidents of the General Medical Council are also thought to be involved as medical advisers.

Many former troops who served in the Gulf during the 1991 conflict have reported symptoms such as muscle weakness, neurological symptoms, headaches, depression, skin rashes and shortage of breath.

The suggested causes have ranged from the pre-conflict injections which Lord Morris has referred to as "a veritable blitzkreig on the immune system" to pollution from burning oil wells, stress, depleted uranium, organophosphates and the effect of low-level exposure to chemical agents destroyed during and after the war.

A US congressional investigation has suggested that far more troops and civilians were exposed to chemical agents than was previously estimated by the Pentagon and the CIA.  

The government has not ruled out an inquiry, but it does not regard one as useful. It has instead stressed the value of its 8.5m research programme, much of which has compared the health of veterans with those who did not serve in the Gulf.

This has failed to find any single Gulf war syndrome, although veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to report symptoms when asked about them. Death rates are similar between the groups.  

Lord Morris accepted the value of research, but said: "We are now 13 years on. None of us wants to see the afflicted and bereaved of the conflict made to suffer added strain and hurtful and demeaning indignities that preventable delay in dealing with their concerns might impose."

About 2,000 Gulf veterans have been awarded "no-fault" war pensions: the onus in these was on the MoD to prove that the illness was not linked to service in the Gulf war, and there was no need for the claimants to prove negligence. There has been pressure from MPs and peers for the government to introduce ex-gratia payments for veterans to avoid further proceedings.