With the debate over Trident renewal ongoing, we risk forgetting the invaluable and unique contribution made by our nuclear test veterans in the establishment of our deterrent. They have yet to be officially recognised in any formal manner, and Britain ranks towards the bottom of the international table of decency when it comes to how other countries treat their test veterans. The time has come to put that right, both for the surviving veterans and the descendents of those no longer with us. The second phase of a campaign sees this important debate in Parliament on Tuesday.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, Congress passed the McMahon Act, which prevented the United States from sharing its nuclear technology, even with its friends and allies. Despite Britain’s significant input into the wartime programme to build the nuclear bomb, access to the programme was frozen. This was tolerable until the USSR detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1949; thereafter it was decided Britain urgently needed to develop its own nuclear deterrent.
A crash programme followed which continued late into the 1960s, when the advent of more powerful hydrogen bombs once again necessitated an accelerated programme to keep parity with the US and USSR. Scientists played their part in this effort – but so did the over 20,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen who took part in the tests in the South Pacific and Australia from 1952 until 1967.
As these tests were carried out at the dawn of the nuclear age, the science was not properly understood – if at all. Precautions were primitive and inadequate, and often failed to properly protect individuals from the effects of blast, heat and ionising radiation. Many of the test veterans believe their health was adversely affected as a result of these tests, a view substantiated by scientific research undertaken by Professor Rowland, whose work was peer-reviewed and subsequently accepted by the-then New Zealand Government.
Armed with this research, the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), of which I am patron, succeeded after a long campaign to persuade the MoD to undertake a Health Needs Analysis of all surviving veterans. This was completed in 2011, and many helpful practical measures are now being introduced as a result, particularly in relation to a veterans’ pathway through the NHS. The focus on health was our first priority, given the age and health profile of the veterans.
The veterans’ next priority is to secure recognition of their unique and vital service to the nation, which has never been forthcoming from the Government. For these aging men, official recognition, in either a written or oral statement from the Prime Minister, would mean so much. To this end, we launched a fresh ‘campaign for recognition’ in Parliament earlier this year, and have secured the support of over 80 MPs of all colours and hues.
As part of the campaign, the veterans are also calling for the establishment of a £25m Benevolent Fund, to distribute grants – on the basis of need – to veterans and their descends to help with treatment and to pay for care. It is hoped the seed money will not come from the MoD, but rather from central Government funds. As it would be in the form of an ex gratia payment, the Government need not have any fears around admitting liability. In addition, the BNTVA has never taken part in any legal proceedings against the Government.
£25m may seem a large sum, but it is modest compared to how many other countries treat their nuclear veterans. The US, for example, gives each veteran £47,000, plus another £47,000 for any secondary attributable illness. No causal link between service and illness is required – if they were present at tests and have an illness, payment is automatic. Canada pays more than £15,000 to each veteran, in addition to war pensions. Even the Isle of Man makes an ex gratia payment of £8,000 to any resident test veteran. In all three countries, veterans benefit from a health system free at the point of use. Britain is truly towards the bottom of the international leagues when it comes to how we treat our test veterans.
I have had productive meetings with both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans, and have discussed the campaign with them. Responses have been cautious, but I remain optimistic. This Government has an excellent record at righting historic wrongs and recognising good causes, and I am confident this will continue.
Next Tuesday, I have secured a Parliamentary debate on the nuclear test veterans. I hope the Minister will listen carefully to the debate, and the contributions from the many MPs who have leant their support to the campaign. Our nuclear test veterans deserve nothing less.