War heroes who fell ill from nuclear tests 60 years ago can sue government

Britain’s nuclear heroes have been told they can still sue the government for the damage they say was caused by atomic testing – just four days after they were told they couldn’t.

But forces who served in conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan may not all be able to seek damages for personal injury, due to a new time limit.

In extraordinary scenes in Parliament, Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer said a new Bill giving ex-service people just six years to file civil claims would not apply to Cold War radiation experiments.

Just four days earlier he had told the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association that it would – causing many to fear that, despite the hope of fresh DNA evidence about radiation damage, they would lose their last chance of justice.

When the Mirror asked the Ministry of Defence to clarify the situation, it said the new law affected veterans who had come under attack and were injured overseas while peacekeeping or combating terrorism, civil unrest or public disorder.

And it all comes just as a groundbreaking genetic study into the test vets by Brunel University tries to establish whether radiation damaged their DNA, then was passed onto their children.

Now Labour has said ex-Army commando Mercer is “not worthy of the office”, and Tory backbenchers are plotting to derail the bill when it comes back to the Commons for a final vote.

Ceri McDade, chairman of the BNTVA, said: “We are hoping the new study produces the evidence the MoD has always challenged us to provide. It would be too cruel if they were to dash our hopes now.”

Around 22,000 men served at weapons trials in Australia and Christmas Island in the South Pacific between 1952 and 1967. Fewer than 3,000 are thought to still be alive. Most were given little or no protective gear.

They report a crippling legacy of cancers and rare medical conditions. Their wives have been found to have 3 times the usual number of miscarriages, and their children had 10 times the normal rate of birth defects. They are also 5 times more likely than anyone else’s children to die as infants.

The BNTVA wrote to Mercer last month, expressing concern about how the new law would affect its members. On October 16 the ex-Army commando wrote back, saying “I am happy to reassure you” the new law would stop them making ‘tort’ or civil court claims for personal injury.

In 2009, 1,000 veteran families sued the MoD but the case was rejected by the Supreme Court for a lack of evidence. If the new study provides that proof, the surviving vets may decide to launch a fresh claim, and the letter appeared to dash that hope.

Yet on Tuesday, amid angry exchanges at a parliamentary com­­­mittee scrutinising the Bill, he said: “Nuclear test veterans are not covered by the bill. It was not an overseas operation, and they are not covered by the bill. The legislation that we are debating does not affect them in any way.”

But he confirmed it would still affect dozens of others. The bill defines “overseas operations” as a deployment “in the course of which Her Majesty’s forces come under attack”, and any veteran or relative who wishes to sue for personal injury or death must do so within six years.

The committee heard that could block compensation for veterans who came under enemy fire, but were injured by their own side. Illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or asbestosis can take decades to develop, leading to long delays in legal claims.

The Bill’s intent is to stop troops being sued by the enemy following conflicts in what has been called “lawfare”. But Labour revealed earlier this month that over 15 years, while there had been 300 claims from Iraqis alleging ill treatment by British troops, there had been 21,000 claims made against the MoD by UK personnel.

Mercer told the committee it was “complete rubbish” and most of the claims were by civilian staff. He said only 552 were from troops alleging personal injury, and 94% of them were already made within 6 years.

But under his Bill, that would still leave 33 veterans – the equivalent of 5 frontline units in Mercer’s former regiment 29 Commando Royal Artillery – denied justice.

Shadow Armed Forces Min­­­ister Stephen Morgan said: “This is no way to treat our veterans and not worthy of the office the Minister currently occupies. Either he has misled the BNTVA, or he doesn’t even understand his own bill. Labour will be looking to clarify the minister’s comments in the coming days.”

Mercer is also under attack from his own side, with backbenchers plotting to derail the Bill when it returns to the Commons. The Royal British Legion has expressed concern about the changes to compensation rights, and the Law Gazette has reported the MoD is “legislating itself out of responsibility”.

Ex-Tory grandee and now independent MP Dr Julian Lewis has also asked the Minister to confirm to Parliament whether the nation’s nuclear heroes will be affected by the change to the law.

An MoD spokesman said: “Nuclear test veterans who believe they have suffered ill health due to their service have the right to apply for no-fault compensation under the war pensions scheme. Their ability to bring a civil claim is unaffected… because the testing programme does not fall within the definition of an overseas operation as set out in the legislation.”