Whitehall forgot our debt of honour

Labour pressures Soames to resign
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The Independent Online
The Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, yesterday fought off Labour demands for his resignation over the Ministry of Defence's suppression of information about the still unexplained Gulf War illness which has so far killed or disabled 1,200 of the 40,000 British service personnel who served in the war against Iraq.

Mr Soames, who became Armed Forces Minister in 1994, told MPs yesterday that there had been "very serious failings in one particular division in the MoD" and that some senior military and civilian officers were likely to face disciplinary action. The division concerned is the Defence Medical Services Finance and Secretariat Division based in Holborn, central London.

While the Commons defence select committee meeting focused on failures of MoD procedure, Gulf War veterans attending the hearing listened, apparently forgotten - like so many British armies of the past.

MPs yesterday tore into the minister and his permanent secretary at the MoD, Richard Mottram, demanding to know why the ministry had provided wrong information for answers to parliamentary questions on the use of organophosphate pesticides, which are one of the possible causes of the mysterious Gulf War illness.

Mr Soames told a highly charged session of the committee that he usually received "immaculate" and thorough advice from his military and civil advisers and had no knowledge that incorrect answers about the use of organophosphates had been given, until 25 September last year. He had then told Parliament as soon as he could, on 4 October.

The cross-party committee of MPs was sympathetic to Mr Soames's plight, but bitterly disappointed Gulf War campaigners said the arguments over who had misled whom and when did not help them.

Carol Hill, wife of Major Ian Hill, head of the Gulf War Families and Veterans' Association, was there, but her husband was too ill to attend, suffering from breathing difficulties. Major Chris Lloyd, a former nursing officer and Tony Flint had both served with 205 General Hospital at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where there were 1,200 British personnel.

"It's too late for these guys," said Mr Flint, pointing to some colour photographs. "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead. He was 21, he was 44, he was 30. That's three out of 123 photos I've got."

Last night, Labour reiterated its allegations that Mr Soames had known earlier but ignored the evidence. Dr David Clark, the party's defence spokesman, said there were at least four occasions when the evidence was ignored.

After prolonged questioning by the committee, which the Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell likened to "peeling an onion", Mr Mottram admitted his investigation had pinned the errors down to the Surgeon-General's organisation. It was headed by Surgeon Vice- Admiral Tony Revell during the period in question, and now by Air Vice- Marshal John Baird. Mr Mottram refused to go further on the grounds that to identify individuals would prejudice their chances of a fair hearing at any future disciplinary proceedings.

An MoD memorandum released yesterday said the answers by first Jeremy Hanley and then Mr Soames to six parliamentary questions in 1994 were incorrect in stating that no organophosphate pesticides had been used, when they had. The wrong advice, submitted in July and November 1994, was repeatedly used. This "constituted a fundamental failure of the working practices adopted by service and civil service staff", according to the report.

Mr Soames said the advice he received had been "absolutely emphatic that no organophosphates had been used. It did not occur to me to question that."

Official attitudes: The unhappy history of Gulf War syndrome

March 1991: Internal MoD reports from Army units in the Gulf stating that organophosphate pesticides (OPs) had been used were apparently ignored.

11 July 1994: Jeremy Hanley, then Armed Forces minister: "No OP insecticide or pesticide sprays were used by British forces".

3 November 1994: Nicholas Soames, his successor: "I am aware of only 10 British service personnel who would have been involved with [OPs] used by the UK forces."

March 1995: Civil servants' briefing note for draft ministerial answer refers to unconfirmed suggestions that British troops might have obtained insecticides locally.

June 1996: Explicit references to use of OPs purchased locally in MoD internal papers.

25 September 1996: Mr Soames's office told by MoD officials that there is "a problem" over the public position on OPs.

4 October 1996: Mr Soames writes to the House of Commons defence committee: "OP pesticides were used more widely in the Gulf than we had ... been led to believe".