Porton Down veterans to sue MoD over gas tests

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The Independent Online

Veterans of secret nerve gas tests at Porton Down have won a victory in their fight for compensation after an ex-RAF clerk proved that he was seriously injured by the trials.

Veterans of secret nerve gas tests at Porton Down have won a victory in their fight for compensation after an ex-RAF clerk proved that he was seriously injured by the trials.

In a landmark decision, the war pensions appeal tribunal has ruled that Mike Paynter has suffered from severe eczema and chronic fatigue syndrome for the past 50 years after being exposed to sulphuric acid and fake London fog at the Wiltshire military laboratory in 1954.

The ruling will boost a campaign by hundreds of Porton Down veterans to win compensation for being allegedly duped into taking part in tests of nerve gases and chemical weapons during the 1950s and 1960s.

Lawyers for up to 550 veterans plan to sue the Ministry of Defence after an inquest jury unanimously ruled last week that one "guinea pig", Ronald Maddison, 20, was unlawfully killed by Porton Down scientists who exposed him to lethal levels of the nerve gas sarin in 1953.

After England's longest-running inquest, which began six months ago and heard 64 days of evidence, the jury accepted expert testimony that the laboratory had recklessly ignored a series of warning signs after several other men had suffered severe reactions to the sarin tests.

Maddison's surviving relatives, led by his sister Lilias Craik, are now planning to sue the MoD for compensation along with Mr Paynter and three other test veterans. If they win, the MoD faces paying out millions of pounds.

Like Mr Paynter, the veterans insist they believed they were helping to find a cure for the common cold, and were never told that they would be exposed to toxic agents such as sarin, VX gas, mustard gas and potentially poisonous artificial London smog.

Mr Paynter, now in his mid-60s, is one of four surviving veterans who is going to the High Court in a test case early next year to challenge long-standing legislation that bars ex-servicemen from suing the Government.

Lawyers believe their case has been strengthened by the appeal tribunal decision in Mr Paynter's case. Alan Care, of the law firm Thomson Snell & Passmore, said: "Hard on the heels of the jury's verdict of unlawful killing of Ronald Maddison, now we know that long-term injury has resulted from a Porton experiment."

The tribunal has ordered the Veterans Agency, which had previously rejected his claim, to begin paying Mr Paynter a war pension because of his injuries. But his pension will be backdated only to 1996 - the year he made his claim. Mr Paynter and his MP, David Atkinson, allege that Porton Down and the MoD covered up his role in the tests for more than 40 years.

They initially denied that he was exposed to any harmful chemicals and only admitted he was exposed to the fake London smog, which included sulphuric acid mist, after being repeatedly pressed by Mr Atkinson.

Mr Paynter told The Independent on Sunday that his life had been wrecked by the tests. Until the exact nature of the Porton Down trials was exposed in 1994, he had believed the eczema, fatigue and other illnesses, which began in 1954, were just bad luck and were unconnected with the tests.

"I feel extremely angry," he said. "My medical history since I went to Porton Down has been diabolical. My quality of life has been considerably reduced by what happened."

David Atkinson, MP for Bournemouth East, one of the first backbenchers to raise the plight of Porton Down veterans in the Commons, said: "I'm absolutely delighted because this is the first sign of justice being done to the victims of Porton Down. It justifies me seeking another adjournment debate to hold the Government to account."