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Vaccine-Damaged Children

Volume 977: debated on Tuesday 29 January 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if any changes have been made in arrangements made to assist vaccine-damaged children; and if he will make a statement.

No. The arrangements remain exactly as my predecessor left them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but is he not surprised at the low percentage of claimants whose claims are being satisfied? Bearing in mind the low numbers, the latest campaign is understandable. In the light of all that, can he repeat his assurance that there has been no amendment in the advice given by his officials on the interpretation of the Act?

I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the scheme that is being administered is that which was approved by Parliament when the Vaccine Damage Payments Act was passed. No administrative directions have been given to those operating the scheme. Over 300 awards have been made, and, if the 1,100 claims awaiting review by tribunals succeed in the same proportions as hitherto, the total number will be around 600. No one has ever suggested that we are dealing with significantly greater numbers of vaccine-damaged children than that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the present payment scheme is not a compensation scheme in the same way as that operated for other special cases, such as industrial injuries compensation? Can he tell the House whether he refuses to pay proper compensation because he rejects Pearson's views that vaccine-damaged children are a special case, because the Government cannot afford to compensate the number of children damaged, or because he believes that these children are less injured than people compensated for industrial injuries? Finally, does he believe that he can fob these children off with £10,000 because they do not have a powerful trade union to fight for them?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that these are difficult problems. It was because the House recognised the special duty that the community owes to vaccine-damaged children that we agreed on all sides that it was right to make a special payment under the provisions of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act. However much sympathy we have for these unfortunate families, we have to ask our- selves how far it is right to go on making more special payments to that group when we all know of families with children suffering equal hardship and disability and with equal needs but who would not qualify for compensation. Our view is that any further scheme of help for families with severely disabled children must await the time when we can introduce a general benefits scheme, which will of course have high priority when further resources become available.

Will my right hon. Friend look into the delay in hearing appeals under the scheme? Some cases have been outstanding for a long time.

I recognise that fact, that it causes great anxiety to parents. The number of tribunals that can operate is limited by the need for highly specialist medical representation. I hope that cases will be cleared as swiftly as possible, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is even more important to give a fair hearing to each case.

Is the Secretary of State concerned about the small number—only 320—who have so far been given compensation? Is he satisfied that the term "seriously disabled" is not being judged too harshly? Is he still insisting, as he has a right to, that when there is a problem of proof, which is always difficult, the balance should always be in favour of the claimant? Finally, is he satisfied that the scheme is working as well as intended?

I recognise the anxieties. The scheme is unchanged from that introduced in the last Parliament by the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) himself. Of course, there is a number of families who will have genuinely thought that they might be eligible for help but whose handicap, on the balance of probabilities—that is the test the Government wrote into the Act—cannot be attributed to the vaccination programme.

The degree of handicap was again approved by the last Parliament. An 80 per cent. degree of disability was set. It was felt that help should go to those families with the most severely disabled children. That is the line that was taken. That is the law now being administered by the tribunals.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the difference between this group of handicapped children and others is that this group were handicapped through following a policy publicly urged on the country by successive Governments and that the Government therefore have a responsibility to them, over and above other groups? Does he agree that it would be appalling if the Government refused to introduce a comprehensive compensation scheme for handicapped people based on the Pearson report? If that is not to happen—we shall be pleased to know whether it is or not—will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to review those people coming within the £10,000 scheme to make sure that, instead of receiving an interim repayment, they get full compensation for their injuries?

I must take up the right hon. Gentleman's point about an interim payment. I have refreshed my memory of the exchanges I had with his right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North on Second Reading of the Bill. Both he, from the Government Dispatch Box, and I were careful not to describe the £10,000 as an interim payment. The right hon. Gentleman made care to look up the references.

A longer-term scheme of help for families with severely handicapped children, which was the Pearson recommendation, is something on which neither side has felt able to commit itself in the light of the resource implication. I am glad to have the assent of the righthon. Member for Norwich, North to that. If those on the Opposition Front Bench are saying that this should be introduced straight away, it is surprising that they left no provision to pay for it.