An independent inquiry is to be held into Gulf War syndrome, the range of unexplained illnesses suffered by soldiers who served in the conflict 14 years ago.
Lord Morris of Manchester, who is honorary parliamentary advisor to the Royal British Legion, announced yesterday that he had established an inquiry team led by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who would conduct the first open investigation into its possible causes.
Lord Lloyd said that although the Government had claimed it had not ruled out holding an inquiry, it had "repeatedly resisted one".
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said last night: "We do not believe that a public inquiry is appropriate at this time. Any scientific research is likely to be able to answer the basic question of why some Gulf veterans are ill." The spokesman said that it would not be right to comment further until more details about the inquiry were known.
Lord Lloyd, 75, a retired judge and former Lord Justice of Appeal, said his inquiry would be held in public and question veterans, relatives and medical experts. He said: "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."
The Royal British Legion, which has repeatedly called for an inquiry into the illnesses suffered by veterans of the conflict, welcomed the announcement and said it would support the inquiry in any way it could. A spokesman said: "It is a matter of great disappointment that an inquiry could not have happened sooner so that any issues identified could be used to improve the procedures for the preparation of troops for current operations."
However, the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association reacted to the news with caution. Shaun Rusling, the chair of the association, said: "My first concern would be that the scope of the inquiry would be narrow and we would get a whitewash. That is something we would find unacceptable: it has to be a fully open and complete inquiry and nothing must be withheld from the public."
Lord Morris said that an inquiry into Gulf War syndrome - which the British Legion first demanded in 1997 - was long overdue. He said: "It is now 14 years since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait precipitated the first Gulf conflict. With 2,585 veterans - many now terminally ill - already in receipt of war pensions, and more than 5,000 reporting a range of undiagnosed illnesses, there is clearly a problem to be addressed."
He said that a great many of those veterans in failing health were still unable to have their illnesses accepted as war-related. He added: "Lord Lloyd's terms of reference will be to investigate the circumstances that have led to the ill-health, and in some cases death, of more than 5,000 British troops following deployment to the Gulf. He will call on Gulf veterans, bereaved dependents and eminent physicians to assist in the inquiry and hopes to receive the full co-operation of the relevant government departments."
The inquiry team will include Dr Norman Jones, emeritus consulting physician at St Thomas' Hospital, London, as medical assessor, while Sir Michael Davies, formerly Clerk of the Parliaments, will be the administrator.
The Legion's most recent demand for an inquiry, in February this year, was supported by lawyers who signed a letter stating "science has not explained their illnesses" and called on the government to institute "a full public review of the position of veterans".
Last week the United States government revealed that 100,000 troops, including 9,000 Britons, may have been exposed to hazardous chemicals released when troops destroyed a stockpile in Iraq in 1991.Reuse content