The Government is facing calls for a public inquiry into chemical weapons tests carried out on soldiers at Porton Down during the 1950s. Jon Robins reports

Gerald Beech was one of the so-called ‘volunteers’ that took part in tests at Porton Down, the Government’s chemical and biological weapons laboratory in the Wiltshire countryside. He was sent into a gas chamber carrying rabbits for a nerve gas test in 1950. “I really began to get scared when the rabbits started dying. When we came out they were all dead,” he said. “We couldn’t see in the daylight for a good 48 hours. We were virtually blinded. And that was just the beginning of my troubles.”

There is one account of what went on at the top-secret base that always stays with Thomson Snell & Passmore’s Alan Care, who is representing some 550 veterans who underwent such experiments. “It just sounds crazy to us, but it was true,” he says. “The body weight of the rabbit would mean that it would die quicker than a human being and the volunteers were told to get out of the chamber [when the rabbits stopped breathing] or die.” Many of the volunteers, like Beech who is now dead, have complained of long-term
ill-health, including severe respiratory problems, as a result of the experiments.

Care is currently calling on the Government to launch a public inquiry into what went on at Porton Down after an inquest jury unanimously ruled in November 2004 that one ‘guinea pig’, Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, was unlawfully killed by scientists who exposed him to lethal levels of nerve gas. Twenty drops (200mgs) of sarin GB nerve gas were dripped on to his uniformed arms as part of an experiment to see how much protection fatigues gave against chemicals.

“We hope that the Government will see sense and the veterans will not have to resort to litigation and seek redress for being duped and injured at Porton Down,” Care says. “We’re concerned that the Government may seek to portray the group as chasing compensation when all they want is an apology, a public inquiry and justice. We believe that a public inquiry is the sensible way ahead.” If that fails, the lawyer and his clients will be looking at compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Care has now been working on one of the longest lasting cover-ups of cold war Britain for more than a decade, first at Leigh Day & Co, then Russell Jones & Walker and now with Thomson Snell. “I don’t think any lawyer had ever had a chance to look at chemical warfare,” he says. “We all knew that things were going on at Porton Down and this was an opportunity to find out what.” But his clients’ stories also represent what Care calls a “snapshot of 1953”. “It’s 50 years ago now and that shouldn’t be forgotten either,” he adds.

Care is a litigation executive (not a solicitor) and specialises in toxic tort cases, such as Lindone and Dioxin, and coordinates the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers’ environmental group. He is currently working with lawyers in Florida on behalf of British families suing a US chemical company after their children were born without eyes as a result of exposure to the fungicide Benlate. The Supreme Court in Florida recently ruled that Benlate was responsible in what is reckoned to be the first ever birth defect chemical case in the world.

Ronald Maddison arrived at Porton Down in May 1953 as a “volunteer/observer”. Care claims that many of the young servicemen were hoodwinked into volunteering after being told that they were taking part in ‘common cold’ research. “They pitched up at Porton Down because they wanted a bit of time off and a few bob in their pocket,” he says. Maddison took part in a Sarin GB chemical warfare nerve agent experiment which sought to “discover the dosage of GB, GE and GF, which when applied to the clothed or bare skin of men would cause incapacitation or death”. Maddison was offered 14 days’ leave and £15 with which he was planning to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. The gas was administered at 10.17am and he died 43 minutes later.

So, how does the inquest result help their campaign for an inquiry? “I personally consider it puts an enormous pressure on the Government because this is a criminal finding,” says Care. “The Government claims civil immunity from civil action under the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 Section 10. We’re saying Parliament could not possibly have intended to protect the Government from the criminal acts committed by the Government. That’s the key here.”

Gerwyn Samuel and Nick Brown of Doughty Street Chambers were instructed by Care for the inquest. The original 1953 inquest was held in secret. Following HM Coroner David Master’s application to the High Court in 2002, Lord Chief Justice Woolf ordered the new hearing. The jury heard evidence from 100 witnesses for 64 days in the longest-running inquest.

According to Care, the disclosure process for the inquest hearing has thrown up the kind of smoking gun correspondence that claimant lawyers pray for. It is a letter, marked “Top Secret”, sent from the Treasury Solicitor’s office to the ministry of supplies six days after Maddison’s death.

The official says that the suggestion that there was not “the slightest element of danger” had proved “somewhat misleading” in the literature encouraging soldiers to volunteer. “Indeed it was difficult to see how it was ever possible to say truthfully that tests with lethal gases didn’t contain the slightest chance of danger.”

If that was not enough, the Treasury Solicitor – “God bless him,” Care adds – goes on to make the critical point that in his view, the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 Section 10 did not protect the MoD. “I would never in my wildest dreams have believed that it could be that bad for [the MoD], frankly,” says Care. The letter had little impact on the inquest, which was about the ‘how, why and when’ Maddison died, but Care hopes that it will be critical for future compensation claims. “It shows basically that the Government has covered up advice from their own solicitors,” he explains.

Marshalling all the personal injury claims of his 550 clients against the Government, should it come to that, is not going to be easy. Veterans claim to have suffered ailments ranging from breathing difficulties to kidney complaints and they were unwittingly exposed to dangerous substances including CS and mustard gas and hallucinogens such as LSD. “If you are looking at 40 years of history at Porton Down and some 20,000 experiments, that, surely to god, must be an area for a public inquiry?” says Care.